Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Science fiction is rarely as thought-provoking and well-acted as Ex Machina, an outstanding entry in the genre that thematically challenges and excites. The sci-fi genre has been anemic in cinema as of late: despite bold mainstream efforts like Interstellar and the occasional surprises like Moon and Source Code, there remain few impactful films that want to attack real-world issues with force and gravitas. Here, the message of monitoring our search history and using it for ulterior motives is latched onto with tenacity for narrative momentum. What could happen if the man behind such a powerful creation, in the vein of a twisted Steve Jobs or Larry Page, decided to use everyone’s search history as a means of creating truly artificial intelligence? That’s the moral, ethical, and scientific dilemma at the heart of Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a fiercely fought film with a central issue that wages between the three lead characters, all played terrifically by the up-and-coming stars inhabiting their roles. The film is always gripping, mysterious, and ends with another foreboding sign of how humanity can corrupt just about anything.
The film opens with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a 26-year old programmer at the world’s largest Internet company. Eerily resembling Google, his work involves coding that guides a person’s searches based on their browser history, building an online profile that continues to grow more accurate over time. Caleb wins an internal lottery at the company that involves an exclusive retreat to the CEO’s house in an undisclosed, far away location that can only be reached by a helicopter. That reclusive man is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a genius that indulges in healthy workouts and excessive drinking. You know, two things that go together like hair and carrots. Nathan has not just seemingly chosen Caleb at random; rather, he knows Caleb is one of his smartest employees and wants to see if he can identify true A.I. on his own. The subject is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that has been gifted with a prosthetic face and the ability to feel and supposedly think for herself. There are questions regarding how she is sentient: is it reactionary, or does she actually generate feelings on her own without help from Caleb’s questioning or his emotions? The “Turing” test performed by the central characters feels timely considering the popularity of last year’s The Imitation Game, as well as the relevancy of search engines being used as a form of intelligence.
Writer-director Alex Garland makes a startlingly cognizant, relevant piece of social commentary that is suspenseful and gripping. He previously wrote Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, 2012’s Dredd remake, and the masterpiece Never Let Me Go. His talents find their way to words here once more, as his characters are vividly drawn and the performances sing from the script. There are some remarkable scenes in the film that hint at the true nature of Nathan: one where he scolds a non-English speaking servant at the dinner table, another where he sits drunk in a dark room observing Caleb, and one late in the film (which I won’t discuss) that proves just how much of a cat-and-mouse game the film becomes. There’s a masterful sense of suspense, particularly as the A.I. that is at stake can shake the foundation of the world as we know it. Gleeson’s performance is surprising in the lead; not overblown, simply subdued and understated, perhaps too much so. Maybe that’s to counter the complete coolness that Isaac exudes as Nathan. There are simply no other up-and-coming actors as talented as Isaac, and he is phenomenal here. His performance reminds me of a young Brando and, oddly enough, an older version of the actor as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
That brings us to Vikander. She’s been an outstanding actress in films like A Royal Affair (a criminally underrated romance with Mads Mikkelsen), Anna Karenina (where she plays a young lover that remains the best part of that adaptation), and even the dismissed The Fifth Estate (where she plays a thankless role, but shines when the script allows it). She has the challenge of playing a robot that is much smarter than a normal computer chip, speaking with clarity and the ability to spew sarcasm and condescension. It’s subtle, but Garland writes the role with intelligence. Fitting, considering how artificial it supposedly is. There’s a remarkably funny conversation in the middle of the film surrounding her physical features, namely why Nathan decides to impose upon her the sexual features of a normal human being. That leads to some telling moments that provide more insight into just how Nathan has been building his A.I., and what it entails in the long-term. The film builds to a glorious conclusion, one that promises just as much as it pays off. It’s rare to find a science-fiction film with this grand sense of loneliness and the descent into madness that inventions can spark; the technological themes that pervade our modern culture are expertly handled as well. Ex Machina may well stand as a sci-fi classic years from now, as a great embodiment of our heavily-monitored culture.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)