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When Interstellar was released last year, I praised it as real science fiction. A sweeping epic that connected a grand vision with basic human emotions. It was welcome departure from the laser blasts and weird aliens of modern movies.
Ex Machina continues this streak of genuine sci-fi with a patient, thought provoking and haunting look into the nature and future of artificial intelligence. If Interstellar was an opera, Ex Machina is a haunting aria that sticks in your mind and refuses to let go.
Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has scored the prize of a lifetime: one week in the presence of Nathan (Oscar Issac), a Steve Jobs like computing pioneer, in his secluded compound. The catch? Nathan wants Caleb to test an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to gauge how human she feels. As Caleb interacts with both Ava and the eccentric inventor, he finds himself with more questions than answers as the lines between humanity and machine begin to blur.
As the reclusive, borderline alcoholic genius, Issac is light and approachable while maintaining a quiet intensity. His zeal for developing the best AI possible is undercut with a desire to find a friend in Caleb and both sides mesh very well. While I’m still not sold on Issac’s chops as a dramatic actor, his grounded personality gives Nathan a realistic, likable feel.
As his young apprentice, Gleeson is easy to sympathize with. A perfect fish out of water, Gleeson gives his character a boyishly eager energy that borders on naïve. Throughout, we are constantly curious of how he fits into Nathan’s overall plan and, as answers are revealed, become genuinely concerned for his well-being.
The real star is the sultry Ava. Using a mixture of sensuality, child-like curiosity and pure bravado, Vikander deftly dances the line between human emotions and robotic precision as her story unfolds. While the effects used to create her robotic body are stunning, her performance is what makes Ava feel real.
A combination of Moon’s patient aesthetics and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s grim vision, Ex Machina is a tension filled affair. As far as debuts go, this is first time director Alex Garland’s District 9: a bold and beautifully shot story brimming with good ideas. As we slip deeper inside the rabbit hole, the drama ramps up, leading to a heart stopping final twenty minutes.
Important in a story rich with themes, Garland wisely picks his spots to deep dive. The film’s meat lives in Caleb’s interactions with Ava. Everything else, from drunken nights with Nathan to the “drop you in the middle of the action” opening is shot with sharp efficiency. Nothing in the script is a waste of time.
The flip side of this is an occasional lack of polish. Garland is so focused on the cake, he tends to forget about the icing. Some of the humor, including a tension shattering dance sequence, falls flat and the Caleb / Nathan relationship never evolves beyond an employer interacting with an employee. You also may be able to tell where the story is going by the 1/3rd mark, but the good news is that you won’t care.
As an allegory for what separates humanity from free thinking robots, Ex Machina is a resounding success. Stylish and sharply written, Alex Garland’s story of the endless possibilities of AI is captivating. A worthy watch for anybody who’s stared at a computer screen and wondered if it was staring back.
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Slickly shot, full of deep themes and very well written. The human element shines through the technology and psychology.
Humor misses more than it hits. The Caleb / Nathan relationship never feels genuine.