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Movie Review: Ex Machina

Ex Machina
I have nothing clever to say about this image

The Turing Test, as explained in the opening scenes of Alex Garland's Ex Machina, is a hypothetical way to measure whether an artificial intelligence is truly intelligent or whether it is mere mimickery. If a human converses with a machine and, after a given period of time, the human cannot tell that the other participant wasn't a fellow human, then the A.I. is said to have "passed" the test. Ex Machina is a film that runs with this concept, demonstrating the test's merits and flaws through a pressure-cooker story involving only three central characters.

In it, programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest at his company, Blue Book (a thinly-veiled analogue for Google), that gives him the chance to spend a week with the reclusive and über-wealthy founder and CEO of the business, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Unbeknownst to Caleb until after he arrives and signs a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan has been spending his time developing an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Caleb's role is to be the human component in her Turing Test. Nathan, though, is deliberately vague on the details, not to mention wildly alcoholic and eccentric, and it doesn't take long for Caleb to realize that there is far more going on than he is lead to believe. Ava, meanwhile, reveals herself to be an astounding accomplishment, and the question of her sentience drives the entire narrative, even as it enters the master-level chess game of the final act.

It's basically Sleuth (the original, of course) meets A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a movie that teases with promises of big twists and heady concepts and then delivers in spades. At first, Caleb seems to be smart, but mostly just a blank slate subservient to the much more aggressive alpha-male qualities of Nathan. However, as he comes to believe that Ava is not only sentient but being horrifically treated and abused in her confinement, he begins to assert his will, and as he uncovers more and more of what is happening on Nathan's enormous and lonely estate, he becomes more and more determined to free her. Nathan, meanwhile, seems more obsessed with the question of whether Caleb and Ava are attracted to each other, which leads to several awkward conversations about android sexuality.

Ex Machina
You can expect a fair amount of philosophical exposition, but don't think for a moment that's all this movie has to offer

And Ava is truly incredible. Alicia Vikander delivers an amazing performance, human enough to sell Ava as a sentient being, but artificial enough that the audience is never really sure how much of her behavior is genuine, how much of it is programmed, and how much of it is deliberate deception. Without spoiling the startling conclusion, I will say that the movie is making a clear case that the Turing Test is wholly inadequate in answering these questions. As such, it is brilliant science-fiction, having something relevant and intelligent to say about its topic and not being shy in addressing and meditating on it. Even more daring, the film doesn't shy away from questions of sexuality, instead being completely up-front with it, even daring to show a lot more android nudity than one would expect.

Even separated from the science-fiction, Ex Machina is still a great film in its own right. Almost the entire film is set in one place with a bare minimum of characters. The scenery, architecture, and visual effects more than make up for this minimalism by being absolutely gorgeous. Whether it's the streaming waterfalls of the estate, the glassy rooms that seem to be built out of the rock, or the seemless mechanisms of Ava's partially transparent android body, it's all stunning and beautiful. There's a calmness to everything that contrasts wonderfully with the ratcheting tension as events unfold, helped along by a mood-altering Philip Glass-style soundtrack that goes from methodical, natural, and ambient to harsh, loud, and cacophonously electronic.

Ex Machina location
It's a hotel in Norway in real life, but I'm not letting go of the idea that you could be wealthy enough to live there all by yourself

It's hard to believe that this is Alex Garland's directorial debut. While it does have a lot of indie sensibilities to it, Ex Machina feels like the work of a seasoned auteur near the end of his life, not the work of the guy who just got finished writing the excessively violent Dredd and is sitting in the director's chair for the first time. There is an incredible attention to detail--to tone, mise-en-scène, narrative logic, cohesive acting takes, editing, focus, and visual effects--that you just don't get from new directors.

To put it simply, this is the kind of film that makes me love film. It is visually captivating, emotionally poignant, intellectually provocative, thematically relevant, and narratively entertaining. It is, in short, a nearly perfect film. It's been a few days since I watched it for the first time, and I'm still getting my jaw off the ground.


Stunning and brilliant, Ex Machina is one of the finest science-fiction films in decades.

-e. magill 4/28/2015

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