Science fiction is easily my favorite genre in both film and television. Often, science fiction is restricted to a box labeled “space”. Real science fiction, as the name implies, is a delicate balance between framing unusual ideas in a plausible way using science. Ex Machina abandons the spectacle, and instead gives us a thought-provoking and character driven thriller about artificial intelligence.
The story follows a young programmer named Caleb who works for a google’esk company. He has been selected to take part of an unknown and unorthodox experiment. The experiment is being conducted by the company’s genius and isolated founder/CEO Nathan. Caleb is transported to an isolated facility in the middle of nowhere. This location doubles as Nathan’s home and research laboratory. After an awkward introduction, Nathan reveals to Caleb the details of the experiment. Nathan has claimed to create a functioning artificial intelligence, a machine he has named Ava. Nathan would like Caleb to interact with Ava and perform a “Turing Test“. The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
The test is to take form in a couple of one on one conversations with the machine. Normally a Turing test is done through some sort of non-visual communication. The administrator isn’t suppose to know it’s a machine. However, Nathan is already convinced Ava could do that.
“The real test is to show you she is a robot. Then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” ~Nathan
The intimacy of the test is what fuels the drama. The film takes these delicate moments and fills them with tension, mysticism and sometimes even horror. Nathan is recluse and walks the fine line between inspired and mad genius. There is something profound going on and Caleb is along for the ride. His interactions with Nathan & Ava give way to his own insecurities on both mental and moral levels.
The entire film becomes a dance between three characters. The film could have gotten lost with these characters by making them walking talking stereotypes. None of the characters are effectively what you expected them to be. This is doubly important for Ava. We’ve seen alot of different renditions of A.I. on the big screen, and Alicia Vikander portrayal feels refreshingly new. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is extremely compelling, displaying bits of genius, arrogance, humility, narcissism and self-destructive behavior all in one package. Domhnall Gleeson is the weaker of the three as Caleb, but does exactly what he was meant to. Bridge the gap between the characters and the audience. The film knows it dealing with some high concepts. It rightly chooses not throw it in the audience face, but it does expect you to pay attention.
On a deeper level the film might be a play on the Turing test itself. I’m not trying to say director Alex Garland wants us to feel consciousness for Ava. He makes sure to provide a persistent sense of mystery. Putting you in a state that is always questioning motivations and rationales. Ex Machina is a film about the debate. What is artificial intelligence? what is human-like consciousness? should humans have any part in the creation of those things. It’s my opinion that Ex Machina is a classic. Strong acting performances and even stronger cinematography put this film at a new level. It’s a film that will fly under most radars, but I think it’ll get the attention it deserves come award season.