Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) makes his directing debut with Ex Machina, a brilliantly conceived and executed, thought-provoking piece of science fiction-cum-chamber drama that puts its big budget contemporaries to shame.
Similar ground has been covered in recent films (think Transcendence) but here’s one that really makes you think – and gets under your skin. Sleek, smart, and timely, Ex Machina is one of the best science fiction movies to come out in recent years.
Made on a budget of just €11 million, the film is nevertheless gorgeous-looking and boasts convincing CGI effects at every turn. The centerpiece of those effects is Ava, a sentient robot played by Alicia Vikander as a human face on a synthetic metal exoskeleton.
The easy way out for a low-budget film would have been for Vikander to play Ava without the CGI body. But Garland and his visual effects team go to great lengths to remind us of the character’s artificial nature in every scene, with f/x that feel credible at every turn. It’s an integral part of the story, and the gamble pays off in spades.
It’s important that the effects are convincing, because the central premise of Ex Machina is the Turing Test – an artificial intelligence test that examines the interaction between a human and a machine. The standard Turing Test (developed by Alan Turing, subject of The Imitation Game) examines the interaction between a human and a machine; when a third party is unable to distinguish between the two, the machine is considered to have passed the test.
Vikander’s Ava is the robotic element of Ex Machina’s Turing Test: she’s a sentient robot created single-handedly by the brilliant Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), founder and CEO of Bluebook, a Google-type search engine company. Ava can change the world once she’s released to the general public, but Bateman needs to test just how convincing she is before he takes the next step.
Enter Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson). A low-level programmer at Bateman’s company, he wins a lottery to come meet Bateman at his secluded home in the wilderness, accessible only by helicopter; the surroundings are starkly explored in the film’s Shining-like opening sequence.
Once there, buddy-buddy Bateman reveals to Caleb that he is to become the human element of a Turing Test. The key thing is that Caleb knows Ava isn’t real going in – Bateman is already aware that she can be fully convincing if the other party doesn’t know she’s artificial. No, the real test is if Caleb knows she’s isn’t real – but can still identify with her as if she were.
That’s where the cleverness of Garland’s script shines through: like Caleb, we begin to learn more and more about Ava through dialogue and observation, and we too begin to identify with her, too. And if she does, indeed, have real thought and emotion, if she’s capable of love… well, what does that mean?
Ex Machina moves in brilliant twists and turns as more of its plot – and backstory – is revealed, and our sympathies swap from character to character to character. There are no easy answers here – it’s up to the audience to decide the ultimate meaning. In some regards, the film recalls Spike Jonze’s thought-provoking human-A.I. romance Her.
If there’s one small quibble here, it’s the standard thriller conceit: how could such a smart guy (Isaac’s Bateman), with such a perfect plan, allow himself to end up in this situation?
Ex Machina has the unfortunate fate of opening up against the $250 million blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film that coincidentally covers some similar ground (Ultron, at least superficially, also deals with themes of artificial intelligence and singularity).
But Ex Machina is not only smarter than the Avengers film, which took a Hulk Smash attitude towards it’s themes, it also looks considerably better – incredible for a film that cost 4% of the Marvel movie. It opened to ecstatic reviews from critics, and even made a minor splash at the US box office this week. There is hope.