Ex Machina

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UK Release Date 21st January 2015
Director Alex Garland
Starring Domhnall Gleeson
Runtime 108 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 18th January 2015

Robots don’t generally come out well in movies, for every helpful Robot & Frank, there are half a dozen scheming Terminators for our future selves to deal with. That we continue to make these movies speaks to our endless curiosity about a subject and a future that seems to have an element of inevitability about it. Although we still haven’t been given the hover boards we were promised all those years ago, we have embraced a large amount of AI variations that make our lives easier. True AI is still seemingly just out of reach though….

And so, Alex Garland, he of The Beach and 28 Days Later fame, has decided to step behind the camera for this foray into what may be. Ex Machina picks up with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) sat doing geeky work at the search engine company (read Google). An onscreen notification pings up to let him know he has won the competition and he is whisked off in a private helicopter with his roller case to an almost Jurassic Park like seclusion in Alaska.

Arriving at what transpires to be the eco lodge style home of the founder of the search company, Caleb is given no directions from the helicopter, beyond a vague gesture in the direction of the house. Meeting the door security that spews out his access card, this uncertainty continues when Caleb finally locates the owner of the house, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Sweating profusely from working out and clad only in sweat pants, Nathan is a bulky, bearded alpha male. After perfunctory introductions, Nathan shows Caleb around his home, or laboratory as he really sees it. Caleb’s card only opens certain doors (to avoid any confusion about which areas he has permission to access) and his room, though well furnished, does not even have any windows.

Caleb’s task in his week long stay at Nathan’s is to assess an AI that Nathan has been working on. Not a true Turing Test, as Caleb points out, but a variation where the human knows that the android is not a human but is to test if it can convince him it is regardless. Nathan’s world is a sparse luxury. His home nestles in the side of an Alaskan mountain and Nathan resides in it in almost splendid isolation. His only companions are the AI, named Ava and an assistant / escort named Kyoko. The relationship with Kyoko is dubious from the outset, Nathan claims she speaks no English and his attitude towards her is degrading and dismissive. Caleb is given access to Eva, who sits in her own accommodation on the other side of glass partition. As they talk, it becomes clear that Eva is responsible for the occasional power outages that leave the house in lockdown, bathed in a red light.

Garland has created a wonderfully bright, clean, visually arresting world for his characters. He and cinematographer Rob Hardy use the contrasting claustrophobic views of the interior of the house and the glorious wide open expanses Alaska (actually Norway) to great effect. Within the confines of the house, Nathan seemingly has everything under control but the wilderness is never far away. Garland has created three very effective characters for his world - Gleeson’s Caleb is as bright as hell and also as dim as dim can be, Isaac’s Nathan is horribly alpha and brimming with misplaced self confidence and Ava…. well, to say too much about Ava would be to spoil the movie but as the cypher that may well bring both men down, she is a wonderful creation.

Played by Alicia Vikander (soon to be seen alongside Ewan McGregor in Julius Avery’s Son of a Gun), Ava is at once stunningly beautiful and strangely gracefully malevolent. Seemingly barely constructed, though as we soon learn, pretty well detailed (!), she is an angelic face on a oddly incomplete body. All the limbs are there and she moves with hyper-human precision but the fact that she is not quite finished off leaves us with an odd feeling in her presence. And credit to Vikander for this unease too. Treading a careful line between objective questions and answers that you'd expect from a machine and a skilfully manipulative being who very much has needs and desires and isn't afraid to fulfil them, her Ava is as sympathetic as she is frightening.

As he spends more time interviewing Ava, it rapidly becomes clear that Caleb is very much out of his depth. This isn’t a scientific experiment with a control group and impartial observation, it’s a billionaire hobbyist playing with both his subject and his employee. With a head full of theories and numbers, Caleb is blinded to the fact that both parties are playing him and suspicions are very quickly raised about who the real subject is here. The reveal will not particularly surprise anyone who’s familiar with this type of movie but that won’t make it any less impactful. For his part, Gleeson is perfect as Caleb. Easily convincing as the intellectual dimwit but also as an innocent who arrived at the house genuinely believing he’d won a competition, rather than being very deliberately selected for the task.

Isaac is likewise a good choice for the manipulative, supremely confident Nathan. Far hairier than we’ve seen him recently, his Nathan is a horrific creation. Cushioned by his huge wealth and given all the time in the world but nobody to really spend it with, his careful manipulation of Caleb is horrifying to behold, as is his callous treatment of what turns out to be his succession of android experiments. His wardrobe is one of the most horrifying creations I’ve seen recently though I won’t spoil it for you by describing it further.

Beautifully shot, perfectly cast, intelligently scripted and wonderfully scored, Ex Machina adds a compelling voice to a busy debate. To be absolutely honest, if you’ve seen Caradog W. James’ recent low budget movie The Machine, you’re going to see a lot that’s familiar, even, weirdly down to the android sharing a name, but that’s not to suggest this isn’t worth seeing, you can just imagine James sitting watching this one and cocking a cynical eyebrow. The impact of either movie is difficult to discuss without spoiler but both use slightly different journeys to arrive at the same conclusion.

Ex Machina doesn’t offer any real angle on whether such AI is a threat or a benefit, more it embraces the inevitability of the thing. Developed in isolation by a creator who, deep down, probably actually believes he is god to his creations, disaster seems inevitable. Garland has crafted a horrifically compelling vision of this future and you can’t help falling in with Caleb as he is seduced by the perfect machine he is attempting to assess. His complete lack of qualification, despite his impressive mind, for this task is likely to be our complete lack of qualification when the robots are at our door. Will they be delivering packages of taking us away for processing into some  kind of food stuff? Garland doesn’t know the answer but he’s prepared to admit we’re on the journey anyway…

Check out the trailer here.

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