Ex_Machina (2015)

Ex MachinaHaving apparently won a week away with his company’s CEO, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) whisked out to a remote island only to be dropped unceremoniously in an empty meadow. He finds Nathan (Oscar Isaac) a few miles away, in a windowless building, and after being granted security clearance at the door is given the grand tour not of his host’s holiday home but of an underground research facility. Nathan is developing a robot, and it’s Caleb’s job as competition winner to determine whether or not it possesses artificial intelligence. Over the course of a series of trails, Caleb interrogates Ava (Alicia Vikander) on everything from logic to likes and dislikes in order to identify a sense of self and hopefully sign off on one of the greatest scientific advancements in human history.

From celebrated screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland, Ex_Machina is a meditation on what constitutes consciousness and whether or not it can ever be attributed to a machine. It’s a smart script, and Garland both introduces and implements the Turing test — the literal imitation game, developed by Alan Turing to help discern whether a specific machine can think — with remarkable authority and economy. He even goes to the trouble of second-guessing his paradigm, as if pre-empting not just critical but peer review, and through Caleb’s conversations with Nathan elaborates on his experiment’s design. Caleb asks why Ava should resemble an attractive human female and not something more along the lines of HAL or R2D2, to which Nathan replies that consciousness might actually have its basis in sex and gender. What is the biological imperative for a self-concept, if not to encourage reproduction?

Even if you can’t tell your Alan Turings from your Benedict Cumberbatches, Ex_Machina will likely still intrigue. The central conceit — that Caleb is alone in the laboratory and doesn’t know who to trust, Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s monster — is a good one, and the performances are ambiguous enough to keep you guessing well into the third act. Gleeson overcomes a pointless American accent (isn’t everyone in the United States at least a quarter Irish anyway?) to impress as Caleb, both as an innocent and — as his week in Nathan’s lab goes on — as someone complicit in a crime of (com)passion. Isaac is great too, playing yet another arrogant, layabout genius but with just enough drive and dynamism to distinguish him from Llewyn Davis. You’re forever asking just how much he knows, what his desired endgame might be and if it is just Ava who is being tested; whether he is in fact capable of greatness is never in question.

Whatever happens to be the case with Ava, and it wouldn’t do to divulge too much, it goes without saying that Vikander passes with flying colours. Her performance augmented by some of the finest effects work $20 million can buy, Vikander quickly conquers the uncanny valley, perfectly maintaining a balance between her own humanity and her character’s artificiality. She is by turns beautiful, curious and really quite intimidating, particularly as she plays with other characters’ perceptions either by putting on clothes or removing sections of synthetic skin. Ex_Machina is at its most powerful and provocative, however, when Ava’s gender is brought front and centre. Sexbots are not unusual in science-fiction, but they are used to particularly disturbing effect here; when Ava begins to flirt during the experiment the atmosphere doesn’t just change in the laboratory but in the cinema, while the (mal)treatment of an earlier model is not just unsettling but genuinely upsetting. This may be a film about robots, but it is human nature that is very much under the microscope.

While the finale might lack the power it perhaps deserves, largely due to the conclusions now particularly following from the original propositions, Ex_Machina is for the most part as engaging as it is entertaining. It’s got everything a great sci-fi needs. Well, except perhaps Scarlett Johansson.

4-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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