A film review by Craig J. Koban May 15, 2015



2015, R, 108 mins.


Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb  /  Oscar Isaac as Nathan  /  Alicia Vikander as Ava

Written and directed by Alex Garland

There have been many recent films that have tackled the weighty and contemplative themes of artificial intelligence to varying degree of success (like the so-so TRANSCENDENCE and CHAPPIE to the masterful HER), but Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA belongs, I think, in a whole other league of its own.  

The British novelist/screenwriter has touched on sci-fi troupes before, penning such films as 28 DAYS LATER, NEVER LET ME GO, and the underrated DREDD, but here – making his directorial debut – Garland tells a spare and economical tale of mankind’s creation and interaction with AI that still manages to speak volumes about our relationship with each other and sentient machines.  Best of all, EX MACHINA is a rare breed of science fiction that’s thoughtfully idea-based, something so decidedly non-existent in the multiplexes these days. 

Like all films that have dealt with the thorny conundrums of robots and AI, EX MACHINA poses many fascinating queries: When is true artificial intelligence reached and or achieved?  When does a robotic being break its shackles, so to speak, with its creator and become a free and independent thinking entity with feelings?  That’s the tantalizing area that science fiction has been dealing with since the turn of the last century, but Garland approaches such technological and ethical questions with a simplistic of approach and execution.  Unlike, say, a film like INTERSTELLAR, heavy on ponderous and exposition heavy dialogue exchanges dealing with its advanced scientific theories, EX MACHINA eliminates the obtrusive tech-babble and instead focuses on character dynamics – between human and non-human characters – and drives its messages home by loading the film with an escalating sensation of dread, unease, and paranoia.  It’s more of a thinking man’s cerebral thriller than an action film, which is most welcoming.  Garland’s approach may be cold and calculating, but it’s creepily and undeniably effective. 



The film wastes absolutely no time in thrusting us directly into its narrative.  We meet Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a gifted and brilliant computer programmer that works for Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine, which is the brainchild of reclusive computer scientist Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).  Nathan is, by all accounts, a pioneering genius in his field, who created his search engine code when he was just 13 and then went on to found his company as a young adult, which allowed him to become a self-made billionaire.  As of late, Nathan has funneled all of his profits into a top-secret experiment, which he has conducted in an equally top-secret bunker-like home and research facility in a guarded and unknown location.  Nathan has selected Caleb – for reasons not initially revealed – to join him at his estate to partake in his newest scientific breakthrough.  Caleb, of course, is ecstatic to not only meet his enigmatic boss, but also to see what he’s up to. 

After Caleb arrives via helicopter to Nathan’s subterranean home he is given a tour of the facilities, which features many off-limits rooms and laboratories that are only accessible via Nathan’s keycard.  Nathan also asks Caleb to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which the young man begrudgingly agrees to without filly understanding what’s to come next.  Caleb soon discovers the reasons for Nathan’s secrecy when he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a being that – on the outside – is part flesh and blood human and part machine.  Various parts of her anatomy – created with astonishingly detailed visual effects – show off the inner workings of her robotic innards, whereas all the other areas (including her face) seem eerily real.  Nathan, it appears, has created the world’s first physically and psychologically authentic synthetic being, but has Ava truly reached the stage of true AI?  That’s where Caleb comes in, and it’s his job to interview Ava over the course of a week to see whether she’s really a creation that can feel and think for herself…or one that’s simply copying the human emotions of her creator.  Through the course of time, Caleb develops an attraction to Ava, which she reciprocates, during which time revelations rear their ugly heads that put Caleb’s trust in Nathan in question. 

The central intoxicating dynamic in EX MACHINA is the three-way relationship between Nathan, his creation, and Caleb.  Nathan sees himself as a pseudo-God-like figure that views Ava – despite her sentient nature – as nothing more than a super advanced computer that can be improved upon with each new iteration (even if that means destroying Ava in the process of his research).  Caleb’s views are decidedly and predictably different, as he begins to see Ava less as machine and more as a distinct life form that he begins to form emotional ties with.  It’s easy to see why Caleb is drawn to Ava: Outwardly, she’s an ethereally beautiful and, dare I say it, erotic creation that seems to tap into Nathan’s deepest masochistic opinions of women as servants to men’s needs.  Part of the genius of Garland’s approach here is in showing the overt level of manipulation by the film’s characters of multiple fronts.  Ava wants Caleb to think she’s a thinking and emotional being.  Caleb is getting drawn into her plight, but can’t let on to Nathan that he is.  Nathan himself has more twisted and self-serving ulterior motives that he doesn’t let on to either party.  EX MACHINA builds tension not through mind-numbing action scenes or crude eye candy (as so many modern sci-fi films do), but rather through the tension that’s generated primarily through character and dialogue driven scenes.  When the plot does engage in some alarming twists and turns they feel earned. 

The performances by the film’s triumvirate are nuanced and pitch perfectly rendered.  Gleeson has the requisite wide-eyed and boyish earnestness that fits his morally driven character well.  Better yet, he’s a shrewd and intelligent character that can match wits and argue ideas with Nathan.  Isaac, an actor of limitless range and appeal, is mesmerizingly effective as Nathan, a man that seemingly feels congenial and hip, but nevertheless uses that as a front to hide his mischievous and sinister impulses.  Isaac is masterful for never overtly telegraphing his character’s motives as purely noble nor evil, which ultimately helps to make him a more compellingly rendered protagonist.  Vikander has the toughest acting challenge of the trio, who has to evoke Ava’s chilling childlike qualities in learning how to act human while simultaneously coming off as a warm and inviting presence for Caleb.  It’s a thanklessly difficult role, but Vikander seems equal to the task of making Ava arguably the most fascinating character in the entire film.  She’s both a vulnerable and scared entity in the film, but emerges as a force of self-actualized action as the film spirals towards an inevitably showdown between all parties. 

I’ve not spoken much about overall plot specifics in EX MACHINA, which would do Garland’s film a grave disservice, seeing as part of the wonderful journey of watching it is for the viewer to take its journey and make the discoveries on their own.  There are arguments to be made that Garland is not really dealing with themes that have not be explored ad nauseum in films before, which is superficially true.  Yet, it’s the manner that he deals with such grand and ambitious ideas that’s EX MACHINA’s coup de grace.  Amazingly, Garland finds a manner of finding an ending to his film that’s both uplifting and hopeful and hauntingly bleak.  It’s rather remarkable how he doesn’t resort to cookie cutter and perfunctory action beats to close his film.  I love how, even in the end, EX MACHINA absconds away from Hollywood’s predilection towards numbing pyrotechnics. 

This has been a solid year thus far for speculative science fiction films.  Earlier we saw PREDESTINATION find twistedly novel ways of telling a time travel story without the usually trappings of the genre.  Garland has done much the same – and to even better effect – in EX MACHINA.  The film teases us mercilessly in terms of expectations; we think we’re going to get one kind of film about AI, but then it pulls the rug out from under us and becomes some altogether more uncommonly engaging and rewarding.   Heavy on big ideas, richly textured performances, and visual stunning – but reserved and subtle – special effects, EX MACHINA is a thought-provoking, impeccably polished and well-made antidote to sci-fi genre lethargy.  It's a work that daringly reaches out to deal with the nature of artificial and human consciousness by tapping into our very own.  And how wonderful is it for a sci-fi film to appease the mind first and foremost? 

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