Friday, April 24, 2015

A Reel Review: EX MACHINA

From books to comics to film, the subject of artificial intelligence (or A.I) has been explored over and over in many different approaches and settings. It always seems that the same questions are asked; such as (but not limited to) what does it mean to be human, and when does A.I. stop being manufactured intelligence and become real? In EX MACHINA, the directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, these same questions are asked…only this time the answers are coming from the other side of the table. 

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is a talented programmer who wins a competition to spend a week at the secluded home and workshop of his company’s brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, Caleb discovers that he was actually chosen; chosen to run a series of test sessions on Nathan’s remarkable and stunning new creation…an A.I. robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

In scientific circles, the Turing Test (named after famed inventor Alan Turing), is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior equal to or indistinguishable from a human. This is the test that Caleb is sent to perform on Ava in a series of secluded sessions, with Nathan watching closely via video monitors. As the two poke and prod each other, a virtual game of chess develops, with each player testing the other to uncover motives and intentions. It is a fascinating match to watch as the two learn from each other…and the lines between who is really the subject of the Turing Test suddenly becomes blurred. 

There is constant sense of mystery surrounding the story. Even though EX MACHINA doesn’t tip its hand early, there is always a feeling that something is not quite right with Nathan and his beautiful machine. This is confirmed around the halfway point when Ava finds a way to communicate to Caleb in a way in which they believe Nathan can’t see or hear. A large cat-and-mouse game is then created, as even the audience is left to guess who knows what about who and when did they know it. Even after all the circling, Alex Garland’s script still allows time for the characters to explore Ava’s intelligence and possible soul. Some incredible discussions about A.I. take place…while still allowing for the relationship between Caleb and Ava to grow. 

Ava herself (itself?) is a cinematic miracle. Played in part by the beautiful Alicia Vikander and brought to life by some of the most convincing CGI in ages, she is amazing to see as she moves and interacts with her co-actors and her environment. With only her face, hands, and feet in a flesh color, the rest of her is put together out of artificial means with her glowing innards exposed. Breathtaking to take in, she becomes a real character with feelings and it doesn’t take long for the audience to love her. 

As beautiful as Ava is, she is matched equally by the incredible set design and lighting. Nathan’s house has a perfect mesh of futuristic sci-fi and old fashioned craftsmanship, and the soft lighting gives the film a constant eerie feel which keeps you on edge. 

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac headline the small cast and both are excellent as opposites of each other. Isaac nearly steals the show as the eccentric genius, but the film really belongs to Alicia Vikander. She creates a character who, even though we know is made up of wires and plastic, is very much flesh and blood at the core. 

Just when EX MACHINA feels like it’s an easy one to figure out, a series of major twists and reveals turns everything upside down; as if all the secrets going on weren’t tricky enough to figure out anyway. This is a true thinking-man’s sci-fi film, with an amazing amount of intelligence, wit, thrills, and heart. This is a special film that needs to be seen. 


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