Ex Machina (10 out of 10); Directed by Alex Garland; Starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac; Written by Alex Garland; Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence; 108 minutes; In limited release on April 10, 2015.
I am in love with this movie. In a deeply committed way. I think it is pretty much perfect and over achieves in a genre that struggles regardless of the medium. Good, smart, SciFi is sorely missing in the world. Especially in film, but it also struggles in books, comics, and etc. (Is there such a thing as Smart Musical Sci-Fi? That would be cool. Maybe Public Service Broadcasting qualifies a little?)
But Sci-Fi that understands the science with which it is playing, as well as digging into issues of a human nature, with strong intelligent characters that are more than just plot devices is so rare. And “Ex Machina” is exactly that kind of Sci-Fi. It is really smart about the science, and even smarter about the characters.
Written and directed by Alex Garland (writer of “Dredd”, “28 Days Later”, and “The Beach”), “Ex Machina” is about what makes us intelligent, what defines us as human. And it is surprisingly engrossing in how it asks those questions and how it tries to answer them.
We first get introduced to Caleb, played by a great Domhnall Gleeson (the Harry Potter movies and the little seen “About Time”), a programmer at BlueBook, a sort of Google type of company that has cornered approximately 90% of the world’s internet search queries. He has won a company contest to spend a week with the big boss.
Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”, “A Most Violent Year”, and the upcoming Star Wars movie) is fantastic as Nathan, the reclusive and brilliant founder of Blue Book. As Caleb soon finds out when he arrives at Nathan’s very remote estate, Nathan has chosen Caleb specifically to help him out on a secret project he has been working on. The contest was ruse. The real reason he picked Caleb was to bring in an outside observer to help run a Turing test of sorts on an artificial intelligence that he has created. (A Turing test is a kind of exam that is supposed to determine if a machine is actually intelligent as opposed to be very cleverly programmed to respond to predicted stimuli –either verbal or visual, etc.)
Ava, portrayed by the almost too delicate seeming Alicia Vikander (who looks like she has five more movies coming out this year, but was also in the really bad “Seventh Son”), is the autonomous machine that Caleb is expected to test to determine if she has real intelligence or not.
And what follows that seemingly simple set up is a complex interplay of hidden expectations and needs, played out mostly in scenes of these characters just talking. Probing each other, trying to determine motivations and truthfulness. Value and trustworthiness. “Ex Machina” is full of organic, motivated exposition. For a movie that is mostly dialogue, it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time, trying to second guess character motivations and even filmmaker motivations.
Just as you begin to think one character is in charge of what is happening, the character paradigm is thrown upside down and you realize that what we are seeing, and what we are hearing is not exactly what is going on. For a movie so full of dialogue, and it is almost all dialogue, there is a ton of subtext playing out unsaid.
And in the end, the movie is about exactly that. How we think. Why we think. Is what we think true or just what we want to be true? Are we just as programmed as our machines.
Intelligence is more than objective thought. It is emotion. It is feeling. Our ability to think, the whole Vulcan race to the contrary, does not exist independent of feelings.
Everything about this movie is mannered and considered. Very little of it seems to be filler, everything has reason. All the little moments and the big moments each contribute in what feels equal measure to the final denouement. The performances are all on point. There is history in each character, and as it all slowly gets revealed, we realize that “Ex Machina” could only end as it does. Without a lot of sentimentality, just a need to experience life.