Review: Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina' Asks Provocative A.I. Questions
by Alex Billington
March 20, 2015
Artificial intelligence seems to be a popular topic in science fiction these days–between giving life to a robot in Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, to extending life in Wally Pfister's Transcendence. The latest A.I. tale is Ex Machina, the feature directing debut of sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland, whose past work includes 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. How does he fare bringing to life his own script? Better than expected. Ex Machina is an engaging, amusing sci-fi thriller that literally asks provocative questions, with smart lines of dialogue that touch upon fascinating, honest topics. Garland digs deep with this movie, bringing up questions and concerns about artificial intelligence that not many others have really addressed.
There's no question that Garland is a very capable science fiction storyteller, and his expertise in writing is obvious as the script for Ex Machina is sleek and sexy. Essentially, Alex Garland is addressing the idea of sexual robots, and what kind of future we might be living in if we can manufacture "significant others" that are lifelike in every way, including the ability to love and to make love. But the big question is, as always, are we ready to handle this kind of power? Do we really know what we're getting into? Obviously not. Artificial intelligence is too powerful, or at least, can be manipulative in a way that we're unprepared to handle. This is what Garland gets into in the film and does so in a very edge-of-your-seat kind of way. We want to find out what's going to happen next, and if we're going to get any answers to any of the questions, or why not.
Ex Machina is built around three characters: Caleb, a talented computer programmer played by Domhnall Gleeson; Nathan, the brilliant owner of the search engine software company he works for played by Oscar Isaac; and Nathan's creation Ava, an artificially intelligent robot female played by Alicia Vikander. Caleb wins a contest to visit Nathan at his elaborate home in the mountains, and quickly learns that it was all a setup to get someone there to give the Turing test to Ava. Can he ask her enough questions and get satisfying enough answers to be convinced she's not a computer (or robot)? It's clever that Garland sticks to his format and segments the film into "sessions" with Ava, as it truly is a film about her evolution and her involvement.
Another way this film differs from other A.I. investigations is in the way it handles dialogue in the context of this very technical story. The conversations between Caleb and Nathan are very real, blatantly honest and lifelike; not-so-much filled with Hollywood cliches or overtly bold lines that no one would ever say, they're actual conversations. The two chat like this was actually happening, and that adds another layer of realism that grounds the film even further, while then allowing our minds to think even bigger when it comes to the questions of robots and artificial intelligence and computers. Garland just wants to ask questions and stir the pot, to make us think about everything from: privacy and the internet, to what we really want out of a partner, to the joys of pleasure, to the importance of and confusion over emotions and if they're real either.
All three of the main actors are excellent, with the two guys effortlessly fulfilling their roles as interesting characters. As for Alicia Vikander as Ava, she's on a whole other level, and I can't even imagine how difficult it must've been to perform as a sentient robot without actually being a robot. It's that performance that is so convincing that makes the entire film work, and she brings the more sensible emotion the story needs even though we question it all by the end. The difficulty is in crafting a character we can believe in, in both ways. We have to believe that she is a robot, a machine created by a human, and yet we also have to believe or perhaps be convinced that maybe she is more than just a machine. Maybe her A.I. contains something more. By making us think about that in this context, it challenges pre-conceived notions of how the world works.
I admire Alex Garland for being so brave as to make the kind of film he wanted to make, to broach edgy and difficult topics in relation to human interaction, and to stay on track throughout. With a smaller budget than Chappie and Transcendence, this film feels much more "indie" and thus he can get away with more, but it doesn't hold back with the big questions it asks. And I really like that it doesn't hold back, because with artificial intelligence being addressed in so many sci-fi films someone smart needs to carefully handle topics like sex and romance. Garland is very intelligent and he knows that the film needs to be entertaining, seductive enough to draw you in, but provocative enough so that it doesn't fail at making the audience think about what they're watching. His ultimate goal is to provoke discussions, for us wonder what if? and why?.
With Ex Machina, Alex Garland shows that he's just as talented as a director as he is a writer, and that he should definitely keep challenging the science fiction genre. Maybe we need more filmmakers like this who won't hold back, who will ask tough questions, and make us think about ourselves. I don't want to compare Ex Machina to Her, another computer-love story, because I love both films for so many different reasons. Her is an original, heartfelt, thoughtful creation, as is Ex Machina, and while they deal with similar topics or artificial intelligence and relationships, they each have so much to say on their own. Just be ready to have deep conversations with whoever you see this film with, it's guaranteed you're going to want to talk about it.