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THIS WEEK: Ex Machina (2015) The eccentric CEO of a Google-like company tasks a mild-mannered employee to conduct interviews with an artificially intelligent robot to see if it could pass for human.
HOW IT STARTS: A self-aware nearly human-looking robot realizes how others think of her. She wants to change that by changing her strange appearance.
THE PREFACE: Ex Machina is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. This sci-fi indie focuses on story instead of action. Characters are the main draw here, not explosions. This intense self-contained psychological thriller is more Alfred Hitchcock than Michael Bay. Screenwriter Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this amazing concept. Garland is Danny Boyle’s genre writer, collaborating on such films as The Beach, Sunshine, and 28 Days Later. His first feature has a strong visual style, with interesting set design and super nerdy cool sci-fi conceptual designs.
The look of Ava is totally captivating. The robotic woman has see-thru portions to remind you (and herself) she isn’t human. Her stunningly beautiful face looks totally realistic. Ava is portrayed by Alicia Vikander, who walks the tightrope of playing no emotion and just enough.
Vikander delicately balances her performance, never once teetering over the edge. She is simply magnetic, urging the viewer to the edge of their seat, begging us to participate. One of the most intriguing elements of Ex Machina is this sort of participatory effect. We want to know more about Ava. We want to know the extent of her emotions and, perhaps more compelling, her motives.
THE SET-UP: Domhnall Gleeson also has to subtly command his emotions to deliver the right sort of performance. If he is too subtle we don’t wonder what he’s thinking. If he’s too obvious we won’t believe in the truth of his emotions. Gleeson excels with getting us on his side… not to mention nailing an American accent. The story follows Gleeson’s shy and passive programmer, Caleb, working for an Apple or Google-like company. He wins a Willy Wonka-style Golden Ticket to the CEO’s home, tucked away in the mountains near some some glaciers. There he meets the reclusive CEO, Nathan, played deliciously by Oscar Isaacs.
We’re never quite sure of the charming Nathan’s motives, and neither is Caleb. The Golden Ticket lets him interview the company’s latest top secret creation: artificial intelligence that can pass as human. Caleb is tasked to test the AI Ava in a new age Alan Turing sort of way and report his findings. A deliberately paced mystery begins to brew. Tension slowly mounts as the story progresses. We become absorbed in the relationships forming between these three characters, constantly wondering what motivates each of them, and to what extant they will go to in order to succeed in their goals.
Each time Caleb interviews Ava, they grow a little closer. We wonder if a relationship will form. We wonder what happens if AI gets a broken heart? We wonder what happens if a human falls in love with a robot? Due to Isaac and Vikander’s excellent performances we also wonder who is really being tested and who is really bad. Lots of questions drive the story. Little mystery boxes keep opening like those layered Russian dolls.
THAT MOMENT: It’s hard to discuss this movie without spoilers, but so far so good. Apologies in advance: this Moment may seem a little vague. Ahem. At one point in the story, Ava decides to alter her appearance. A sincere relationship with Caleb is blossoming. Ava wants to please her new lover. She wants to dress up like a woman she’s seen in pictures. She wants to be feminine.
Once Ava realizes her own reflection, she realizes how others see her. She discovers a connection between how she’s being treated. If she looked human, she truly could pass for human. Having an AI with sexuality and extreme intelligence allows for some interesting situations to explore.
In That Moment Ava looks to her reflection. There’s a sense of layered discovery. She is just a bunch of mechanical parts assembled together and forming a whole. This introspective moment parallels humans – scientifically our minds are just chemicals reacting and our body is simply a bunch of parts. It’s what is done with these parts that is important.
Ava stares in her reflection and makes a discovery. Her nude femine form is definitely attractive, but the more amazing quality is she finally looks how she feels. Ava looks human. This Moment is so impactful because of what this magnificent AI creation has planned next (spoiler free), which also adds another enticing layer to reflect upon.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: The next mystery box that opens up is why Ava wants a human form. Freedom compels us all. As the story unravels we wonder how far Ava will go to be free. Is she using her attraction with Caleb to get free through manipulation? Or does she really love him? What comes next begs all sorts of philosophical discussion.
Ex Machina feels a lot like the similarly themed Blade Runner. There is so much power in the concept of AI realizing they’re alive and their own mortality. Like us, AI fights against finality. While Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic is much more exciting, Alex Garland’s brave debut should rank right up there with it in the echelons of brilliantly executed films in the genre.
Machina is beautiful to look at, and deep enough to engage the viewer. It’s destined to be a future cult classic. Excellent performances lead the way. Vikander is a revelation as Ava. Gleeson is relatable. Isaac is delightfully duplicitous.
Both of rising star Vikander’s leading men reunite in Star Wars. With that in mind, whatever Garland directs next is nearly just as exciting as my anticipation for that movie set in a galaxy far far away. Ex Machina was that impressive.