There are many films, novels, and games that tackle the concept of artificial intelligence, utilizing an even larger variety of perspectives on the subject. Whether it’s the apocalyptic domination of Terminator, the equality struggle of the Geth in Mass Effect, or the acceptance seen in Star Trek, the idea of artificial intelligence can inspire people to create vastly different stories. Ex Machina challenges the definition of humanity, letting the viewer be the judge. While Ex Machina doesn’t approach its core concept from an entirely new angle, its execution creates a the feeling of venturing into new territory.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for a search-engine company, wins a week long stay with the reclusive CEO of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After a helicopter ride and a trek through the woods Caleb arrives at the secluded home of Nathan. Upon meeting, Caleb discovers that this is much more than a social visit; Caleb has been chosen to be the human component in a Turing Test for Nathan’s latest creation, Ava. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an advanced artificial intelligence, kept hidden away from the world. Having a session to speak with Ava each day, Caleb discovers that she is a remarkable step forward for technology, but struggles to determine if she is truly sentient or just mimicking genuine emotion. As Caleb spends more time with Ava and the complex, he begins to see the facade breaking down, revealing the dark secrets of Nathan’s experiments.
The isolated nature of the film allows the performances of the cast to flourish. Isaac, Domhnall, and Vikander each give brilliant performances, adapting and changing throughout the film. Isaac gives such depth to his character, always masking his intentions with a smile and a laugh. His portrayal of Nathan creates the sense of uncertainty in every scene, allowing the audience to share the emotions that Caleb is experiencing. Vikander shines as the fragile, deceptive AI, Ava. Her curiosity and pain can be heartbreaking to watch, which makes the impact even greater when she shifts gears and reveals how truly advanced she is. Domhnall provides the perfect embodiment of the audience, stepping into an alien world of unfathomable technology and cruel deceptions. Domhnall develops his character exceedingly well, transforming from a shy programmer into a major player of the film’s scheme. While each of the leads succeed individually in creating fleshed out and genuine characters, they work even better as a whole.
The cinematography of Ex Machina takes full advantage of the claustrophobic underground setting. The tight corners and rooms of the complex are filled with glass and mirrors, further adding to the unsettling nature of the film. The use of color particularly stands out, using the lighting of the scenes to dictate the atmosphere. The soundtrack of Ex Machina goes well with the film, but is almost so subtle and ambient that you don’t notice it. I’m not sure if I’m impressed that the score blended so well into the film or disappointed that there wasn’t any music that stood out. Thankfully, sound is still used proficiently to create that dreadful pit in your stomach during tense scenes. The effects used in the film are top notch, particularly with Ava, due to most of her body being metallic or clear plastic. The CGI and Vikander’s performance breathe life into a character that could have easily been mishandled.
Director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd, Sunshine) has created something very special with Ex Machina. It’s a film that tiptoes on the line of fiction and plausible science, making it all the more nerve-racking. The comparison between human nature and the nature of an artificial intelligence, how the two influence each other, is striking enough to leave you wondering days after seeing the film. Masterfully executed on a technical level, driven by a powerhouse trio, and featuring one of the best science fiction stories in the last few years, Garland’s directorial debut has set the bar high.