Review: Ex Machina (Garland, 2015)

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With Ex Machina, long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland proves that he is up to the task of directorial duties with a sci-fi thriller that stresses ideas above simple set-pieces. Minimal and at times subdued, Ex Machina‘s contained and claustrophobic narrative ramps up from the initial audience ‘meet and greet’ with it’s imagined A.I. technology towards its underplayed but gripping denouement. A tense interplay between its three central performances – competition winner Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), billionaire tech giant Nathan (Oscar Issac) and his technological miracle, the android Ava (Alicia Vikander) – the film comes across as something akin to Blade Runner, with a little bit of home lock-down drama Misery thrown in for good measure. 

Straight to the point in the film’s economical opening few minutes, Garland introduces his central protagonist Caleb, a young programmer working for a tech company called Blue Book, as he wins a competition that sees him granted a visit to his enigmatic boss’s remote home. Nathan, a Zuckerberg like dot-com prodigy, welcomes Caleb into this house, dismissing the usual awkward tendencies between boss and employee with the advice that Caleb should just treat the billionaire as another guy, chatting and relaxing over a few beers. The tension and distrust which arises between the two is clear from the outset, however, with Caleb unable to pinpoint exactly where his boss’s motives reside. However, his anxieties are put to one side momentarily after he learns why Nathan sought a visitor through the competition. After signing a few non-disclosure agreements, Caleb is introduced to Ava, an android who’s outward appearance resembles (in fragments) a young, beautiful woman. Her robotic construction is in places masked by an artificial face, hands and feet, although her inhuman aspects clearly render Ava an uncanny blend of machinery and humanity. Caleb, who is immediately astounded by Nathan’s creation, is tasked with taking on the role of the human component within the ‘Turing test’: that is, to consider whether Ava’s A.I. is indistinguishable from that of the human mind and whether her consciousness is truly acting independently of any pre-programmed instruction. Propelled by a series of ‘sessions’ in which Caleb converses with Ava on a number of subjects to determine the parameters of her A.I., the film launches off into narrative which explores the frightening consequences of A.I. itself and what such consequences could potentially mean for the future of the human race.

Posited by Nathan as being the next evolutionary leap both propagated and experienced by humanity, A.I. in Ex Machina is presented as both awe-inspiring and truly terrifying. With a line which echoes some of the ideas and imagery of Kubrick’s 2001, Nathan in one sequence suggests that A.I. ‘will look back on us the same way we look at fossils.’ And here lies the film’s main thematic idea. If evolution is understood in Darwinian terms, as surely as the film’s tagline – ‘There is nothing more human than the will to survive’ – suggests, then Ex Machina depicts the first step towards the downfall of humanity and the ascendency of artificial intelligence. In and amongst the film’s obligatory genre trappings Garland is able to touch upon some truly compelling ideas and questions in this regard. One of the film’s many strengths, alongside its brilliant performances and remarkable use of CGI, is in it’s refusal to pander to the sort of narrative twists which in a lesser production would have provided the sole foundation for the film. For example, a quick scene cuts down the potential mind-fuck-baiting plot device that Caleb is suffering from Deckard-syndrome, as quickly as the idea is hinted at. Instead, Garland puts enough trust in his audience to maintain Ava as the piece’s central focus, allowing her resourcefulness and instinct to become the main site of spectacle and engagement, rather than giving into third-act eleventh hour twists and revelations. Ex Machina‘s conclusion is a logical one given the film’s preoccupation with highlighting how each of the three central protagonists are each fighting for very separate goals, be they sincere about such aspirations or not. The proliferation of human vice, folly and assumed self-importance which Ex Machina foregrounds, quickly leaves such characters obsolete and fighting against a tide of superior intellect and authority. Whilst Garland demonstrates that the desire to ‘play God’ is ultimately destructive, he also highlights how the desire to ‘play saviour’ in order to fulfil a certain cultural ideal, is a similar indiscretion when one does not consider the desires, motives and intelligence (be they artificial or not) of the one being saved. Ex Machina‘s characters are not simply black and white, good and evil constructions but are as complex as the mechanics which make up Ava herself.

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