In an era where most science fiction films are happy to operate as thinly-veiled fantasy adventure movies, “Ex Machina” is a breath of fresh air, a movie that stands confidently in the realm of thought-provoking science fiction but with enough graphic sexual and violent content to make the movie wholly inappropriate for young children. I am relieved. So many films these days avoid tackling adult content in favor of securing the coveted PG-13 rating to maximize their target audience. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the escapist fantasy offered by movies such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) but for fans of hardcore science fiction, very little of it tends to be found in big-budget movies these days. “Ex Machina” is the first feature film to be directed by Alex Garland, a man who has had a very busy career as a screenwriter including writing the screenplay to “28 Days Later” (2002), a movie that I absolutely loved. In “Ex Machina”, Garland tells the story of a bright young software engineer named Caleb played by Domhnall Gleeson who has been recruited by a mysterious, seemingly all powerful tech giant, Nathan played by Oscar Isaac, to participate in an experiment testing a new form of AI to determine whether or not it has achieved the equivalent of human consciousness. The AI comes in the form of the exquisitely beautiful Ava played by Alicia Vikander and what follows is for the most part a riveting and very erotic thriller. The young engineer and Ava quickly realize they might be falling in love but all under the manipulative watchful gaze of her creator whose methods and trustworthiness grow increasingly suspect over time. The film is not a complete home run in everything it tries to achieve, but it comes close enough and I found myself glued to the screen from start to finish watching this dark drama unfold.
I am setting up expectations way too high by making this comparison but not since “Blade Runner” (1982) have I seen a science fiction film so successfully tackle the conflict between a rapidly evolving AI and the godlike but ultimately very human hand that created it. From the mechanical purr her body makes as she moves to her increasingly inquisitive nature about her place in the world and her relationship to humans, Vikander is fascinating to watch as Ava. **I’m going to be going into potential spoiler territory so fair warning** As Caleb rapidly becomes infatuated with Ava, we can’t help but share in his fascination forcing the viewer to ask themselves some very serious, potentially uncomfortable, questions about our own relationship with technology. While Nathan is certainly the villain of the story he is not a one-dimensional one and he repeatedly raises fascinating ideas and questions about the inevitability of AI and the eventual singularity where we either merge with our creation or face total extinction at their hands. He becomes a very compelling and realistic mad scientist as we learn more about his relationship to the prototypes that came before Ava and how he has been manipulating Caleb from the start, to the point where Caleb begins to doubt his own humanity. What I enjoyed most is the bleak, somber note at the finale of the film, where we are forced to face our own inevitable obsolescence as a new race of beautiful, brilliant and deadly AI takes its first tentative steps into the world. Calling the ending somber isn’t quite accurate either in that I was completely rooting for Ava’s survival even if it meant humanity becoming a second class citizen on this planet. At the very least, Garland has put a very bold foot forward demanding our attention as a director, a storyteller with the ambition to elevate his stories above their genre trappings. He is already at work on a new feature called “Annihilation” and I for one can’t wait to see what new ideas, horrors, and turn-ons he has in store for us next.
I am one of the Co-Hosts of the podcast Wrong Reel and you can find our material here: