Hollywood and its obsession with A.I. technology goes far back. From simple, fun cartoons like The Jetsons to complex, apocalyptic stories like The Terminator, robots and the unknown future of A.I. have been a centerpiece of science fiction story telling for years. One thing that is rarely ever talked about in these films, though, is the simplistic A.I.s. The ones that have no plans to take over the world but to just be free, to just exist. These types of movies have existed in the past (Spielberg’s A.I. being an incredibly underrated entry) but I don’t think any of them have tackled the subject matter quite as well as Alex Garland’s sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina. Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for a major company, as he is chosen to participate in a highly secretive experiment that handles A.I. and synthetic intelligence technology. He is then shipped out to a mansion in the woods, owned by the brilliant but reclusive scientist Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After arriving, Caleb discovers that Nathan has created a highly intelligent synthetic A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and is tasked to evaluate any and all human qualities Ava might produce. From here, Ex Machina becomes a roller coaster into science fiction insanity.
Making a very human film about something that’s not so human itself is tough, but Alex Garland nails it with Ex Machina. Ava isn’t just a robot, or an A.I. with a goal; Ava is just a being wanting to exist, wanting to be free, and wanting to be herself. Thanks to a phenomenal performance by Alicia Vikander (the performance which she deserved the Oscar for, not The Danish Girl), Ava bends reality and makes you question the situations she is put through, and the ethics, if there is any, towards A.I. Gleeson steers the ship, passing through these questions with Ava as Caleb, a character who is either completely brilliant or incredibly naive. Should Caleb trust Ava, or is he getting distracted by the complete humanity she seems to conjure up, even if that humanity might not be completely accurate? The seas only get rougher as Isaac’s Nathan adds a dash of insanity and distrust to Caleb. Isaac’s batshit crazy performance is one to behold, and whenever he’s onscreen its impossible to take your eyes off of him. He also graces us in one of the best scenes of 2014, with a dance sequence that’ll either make you laugh or squirm in your seat.
Alex Garland has crafted a phenomenal piece of science fiction with Ex Machina, one that is sadly overlooked a few years later. Hopefully with Garland’s second directorial effort, an adaption of the novel Annihilation, Ex Machina will be seen again as a class of its own, and get the recognition it deserves.
dir. Alex Garland
Showing at the Brattle Theatre on November 9th at 7:30 PM with a discussion with computational neuroscientist David Cox, tech critic Sara Watson, and The Technoskeptic‘s Mo Lotman after the movie!