Ex Machina review: Humanity 2.0
Typically, when I go to a screening for review purposes, I have a few days to process the film before I actually get down to writing. That time helps to organize my thoughts, and I can let what I just saw sink in. That didn’t happen with my Ex Machina review, but that may end up being for the best.
The original screening for Ex Machina fell on a date that I just could not make. It was completely my fault, and for multiple reasons I wasn’t able to get anyone to cover it for me. We cover movies and tech here at DBP, so it was an obvious film to aim for, but the best laid plans and all that. Reluctantly I was prepared to write it off, but luckily there was second screening the night before the film’s release.
I’m writing this just hours after seeing the film, so my impressions are fresh. It’s not the first time I’ve had to turn a review around quickly, and with Ex Machina, I think that truncated time frame is actually going to prove to be a good thing. Ex Machina is the type of film where you can out think yourself.
In a lot of ways the entire film is a thought experiment with a budget. There are so many angles to see, and so many nuances to digest that it may be better to stick with a raw, visceral impression, otherwise you could find yourself lost in the nuance. There are several interesting ideas that crop up, like the way we as a society consume data, and what it says about us, but those are secondary to the story, and add color without really informing my opinion.
And my impression is that despite some early pacing problems, Ex Machina is one of the best, true science fiction films in years, and possibly the best Artificial Intelligence films ever made.
Ex Machina is a deliberate contradiction in some ways, which is an attempt to keep you off balance. It tries to trick you, but not through manipulating the audience. Instead it hits you with a logical puzzle, and presents it from an angle you won’t necessarily see coming.
Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s first directorial debut, and it is an impressive one. He earned his shot at the big chair thanks to some smart screenplays for films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the vastly underrated Dredd. Those films all have a common thread too – they take a familiar themes or genres and then come at it from a different angle. The same is true with Ex Machina.
The film is about the rise of AI, but instead of the now common “AI will kill us all” or “some shortsighted human wants to destroy the sweet, harmless AI,” the film approaches it from a different perspective. It raises a somewhat horrific question that is realistic, and yet mostly ignored
When AI is inevitably created, most people seem to have the impression that one day someone will flip a switch and bam, time to say hello to our new overlords. The truth may end up being far more gradual, and morally gray though. In reality, to confirm that a true artificial consciousness has been created, it must be tested. And if it fails, there are consequences.
Ex Machina begins when a young programmer named Caleb (Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows Part 1 & 2’s Domhnall Gleeson) is notified that he has been selected to spend the week with his reclusive boss, Nathan (A Most Violent Year’s Oscar Isaac), the rich and brilliant founder of a company modeled after Google. After arriving at Nathan’s remote estate, he is soon informed that his boss’ house is actually a research base, and Caleb has been selected to test what may be the world’s first, true AI.
Caleb enthusiastically agrees, and is soon introduced to Ava (The Fifth Estate’s Alicia Vikander), the humanoid AI with the shape and face of a young woman. Caleb begins to test her, but she in turn begins to test him. Then things take an unexpected turn when Ava begins to wonder what would happen if she fails the tests.
What begins as an interesting intellectual experiment becomes an ethical minefield. It goes so far beyond right and wrong and enters into philosophical territory.
Ex Machina is true science fiction in the classical sense of the genre. It uses real science to present fictional scenarios that force the audience to question their own beliefs. It’s a refreshing change of pace from most sci-fi that defines its own boundaries, then lets the actions play out. You don’t know exactly who you are rooting for, or who you should root for.
If you are looking for action, look elsewhere. Ex Machina could easily be converted to a stage play – although the effects used to create Ava are so good you will probably take them for granted. Otherwise though, the entire movie features just four characters (with a few others appearing for seconds at most). As a consequence, there are moments that slow the pacing down, especially in the beginning.
The three primary stars – Gleeson, Vikander, and Isaac – all turn in incredible performances, although the movie hastily and awkwardly introduces the audience to Caleb and Nathan. The film wants to get to Ava so badly that it sacrifices a bit of what is the groundwork for the rest of the film. It isn’t really until about the halfway point that you begin to understand what Ex Machina is and what it’s really about. You’ll need some patience, but it eventually pays off.
Ex Machina review Conclusion
Ex Machina is the type of movie that requires you to put in some mental effort to really appreciate it. Despite some cool special effects sprinkled in, the entire story is played out through dialogue heavy interactions between the characters. That’s the film’s strength and possibly weakness, depending on the type of film you like. The ads running on TV right now that suggest an action filled movie won’t do it any favors either.
I’m actually glad I haven’t had time to think about the film too much. I may come to appreciate certain aspects more, but it’s so deeply built around the emotional weight it carries that it may be better to go with the gut on this one. And in that, Ex Machina is one of the best and smartest sci-fi films – true science fiction films – in years. Just be prepared to think.
(Ex Machina is Rated R, with a running time of 108 minutes)