This slowburn sci-fi thriller proves to be a memorable and impressive directorial debut by Alex Garland, with thought-provoking dialogue, sharp performances, and an overall clever screenplay that lingers on in our minds long after the credits roll.
In an unspecified near future, a young computer coder named Caleb Smith (Domhall Gleeson) is selected to join the CEO of tech giant Bluebook Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) in his reclusive and highly modernist estate. The week-long visit becomes a surprise experiment when Nathan reveals that he has been working on an advanced artificial intelligence called Ava (Alicia Vikander) and has brought Caleb in to administer a Turing Test on the AI: a test to determine Ava’s self awareness in contrast to her just simulating human emotion.
Ex Machina isn’t a mainstraeam sci-fi thriller, but more of a contemplative character drama that focuses on intelligence and human consciousness by way of philosophical dialogue and high tech lexicon between Nathan and Caleb. Their conversations, although never lasting for more than 10 minutes or so, is never boring and takes more time to digest and fully ruminate.
However, it is the interrogation (or “interviews”) between Ava and Caleb that you can’t really take your eyes off the screen. Alicia Vikander’s Ava is the main attraction here. Her layered and nuanced performance as an AI robot that is near indistinguishable from a human is captivating; her vulnerable and endearing Ava forces us to feel wonder and also fear the capabilities of artificial intelligence.
Domhall Gleeson’s wide-eyed and empathetic Caleb is a well-received performance, but he is overshadowed by his co-stars. Isaac’s Nathan is certainly fascinating and entertaining as the very embodiment of human conflict: a creative genius, a recluse of his own making, drowning in his own vices and wealth, and at a later point in the movie, almost unhinged by his own inventions.
The plot unfolds at an enjoyable pace as well, although some would say that the third act went downhill. At first, Caleb is empathetic but distant in his interviews with the AI, but soon finds himself “enamoured” with Ava’s seemingly natural flirtation and fear of being “turned off”. Soon blurring the line between consciousness and simulation, or sexuality and artificial affection, even Caleb begins to doubt himself and engages in a truly disturbing sequence to find out if he is real or a robot too. By the time the third act unravels, we are waist-deep in the Kubrickian thrill and drama between the 3 characters and their quest for meaning in intelligence and human soul.
Ex Machina is a seductive piece of movie storytelling that is slightly snobbish and subversive. With clever camera compositions and nuanced performances, plus a brave take on the artificial intelligence trope that could have gone the cliche route, this movie will captivate and leave audiences with much room for contemplation.