Ex Machina,
directed by Alex Garland
(Universal Pictures, 2014)

Ex Machina is one of those films that are really more like science fact than fiction because it's neatly constructed and full of good science. It's also an intelligent, thoughtful and engaging exploration of the intersection of human morality and field of artificial intelligence.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, has won a competition within the company he works for. The prize: a week at boss Nathan's (Oscar Isaac) remote mountain hideaway. Caleb has been selected to interact with the most advanced form of AI yet, a robot named Ava 9.8 (Alicia Vikander), to see if she can interact successfully with a human. Nathan's main goal is to see if Ava has consciousness.

Yet almost from the moment Caleb interacts with Ava, it's clear that nothing is that simple. During his sessions with Ava, Caleb is not just impressed with Ava, he's infatuated with her. Ava, in turn, regards Nathan with the fearful reverence of a god, all the while telling Caleb that Nathan should not be trusted. Nathan is ready to replace Ava with a newer model, the 9.9, leaving Ava the 9.8 wondering about her survival. The tension between the main triangle of Caleb, Ava and Nathan, is as nerve-wracking as it is subtle.

Alicia Vikander gives a fantastic performance. Her beautifully expressive face crosses back and forth between robotic subservience and humanistic self-awareness. One minute Ava is calculating the use of everyone around her, the next minute she's vulnerable, showing fear over her future, curiosity about Caleb, and caring for him somewhat, enough to warn him about Nathan.

Ava imitates humans as opposed to having an actual personality of her own -- her odd, yet graceful detachment only adding to the tense, rather spooky atmosphere. Nathan switches back and forth between friendly to cold and threatening in a heartbeat, which ratchets the drama up to scary very quickly. Caleb is like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed by the enormity of what's taking place in his boss' mountain hideaway as well as by his multiple conflicting feelings about Ava.

The cold, stark, orderly-to-the-point-of-claustrophobic interior of Nathan's home is surrounded by a lush wilderness outside, a metaphor if there ever was one. Ex Machina is about whether or not human beings, including perhaps the newly created ones, are ever going to evolve past survival of the fittest. Ava does what she has to do, in order to ensure her existence, making her the perfect Darwinian metaphor for human nature. And when survival is all that matters, morality and ethics are in the rearview mirror.

With brilliant photography, three well-defined characters, taut direction and a script that remains within the bounds of scientific plausibility, Ex Machina is one of the best hybrid sci-fi/thrillers in recent years.

review by
Mary Harvey

2 December 2017

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