What is artificial intelligence? Is it achievable? Should it be achievable? These are questions that humans have wrestled with since the advent of the computer, and even before. As we create rudimentary approximations of the mind for our own personal convenience, we edge ever closer to the possibility of creating something that proves to be our equal, or even, our superior.
What makes Alex Garland’s Ex Machina different from countless others like it is it’s unrelenting objectivity. The artificial consciousness at it’s center is neither portrayed as something to be feared or enamored with. At least, no more so than the humans at play. The questions therein are never in the petty field of “are A.I.’s evil?” but rather, what does it mean to create a real person through synthetic means? What rights and freedoms is that consciousness owed as a personhood, as a being? What even qualifies a fake mind as a “real” consciousness?
Ex Machina is, for the most part, a three-player game between Ava (Alicia Vikander); the A.I at the story’s center, Nathan (Oscar Isaac); the powerful and reclusive scientist who created her, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson); a star struck employee of Nathan’s brought in to test Ava’s cognitive abilities. What begins as a test of Ava’s consciousness slowly transforms into a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between Nathan and Caleb as the latter becomes more and more suspicious of his employer’s potentially ethics-breaching methods.
Isaac and Gleeson prove a spectacular pair, bouncing off each other’s nuanced but stark personalities in a way that feels natural, but with an edge. Isaac in particular owns his role as the off-kilter Nathan, a potent mix of dry wit and vaguely threatening demeanor. As Ava, Vikander falls neatly into her persona. A delicacy and a sweetness with an undercurrent of mental disturbance define the character. And what could have easily played as a cliché sexy robo-woman feels, instead, like a very real person with very real motivations, despite some distinctly robotic traits. These three form a triumvirate powerhouse of barely concealed emotions and uneasy distrust. There is always a sense that a game is being played out between these three, but what the rules are and what the endgame truly is are left for the audience to discover as the story deliberately unwinds.
Alex Garland’s tightly wound sci-fi thriller Ex Machina is an instant staple of the cinematic conversation on artificial intelligence. A sort of dark cousin to Spike Jonze’s Her, here is a fascinating guessing game, one that wisely plays it’s cards very close to the chest, maintaining a sense of suspense so thick you could cut it with a butter knife.
Amongst the pack of cerebral indie sci-fi, Ex Machina is at the top of the class. As a debut feature from Garland, it proves a surprisingly self-assured and tightly constructed thriller that stands with the masters of the genre. A dark cousin to Spike Jonze’s Her, here is a fascinating guessing game, one that wisely plays it’s cards very close to the chest, maintaining a sense of suspense so thick you could cut it with a butter knife. Whether the film proves to be a classic remains to be seen, but the pieces are certainly all there. On a limited budget but with a strong vision, Ex Machina Is easily one of the year’s must sees, a uniquely sharp-minded and nuanced exploration of the potential of science fiction storytelling.