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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Word of advice: if an eccentric (and possibly insane) billionaire invites you to spend a week at his isolated, Bond villain style lair, even under the guise of it being the prize in a contest, don't go. Just don't. Nothing good will happen there. Especially if there are robots involved. Someone is going to die, there's no way around it. Best case scenario, you spend a week on an estate so vast that it takes over two hours to travel the length of it by helicopter, yet feels as claustrophobic as a prison cell. It makes for a bad vacation - but a pretty solid science fiction psychological thriller in the hands of writer/director Alex Garland.

The hero of Ex Machina is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer with a Google-like company who wins a company-wide contest to visit the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility. On arrival, Caleb finds a compound loaded with security measures where the door to every room can only be opened by personalized key card and the only resident other than Nathan is his housemaid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who Nathan explains doesn't speak English and therefore can't spy on their conversations. After making Caleb sign an extensive non-disclosure agreement, Nathan shows him the project he's been working on: an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a human-like body. Caleb is amazed by what Nathan has created, and eager to participate when Nathan reveals that the purpose of his visit is to engage the AI in the Turing test to measure its ability to engage in behavior equivalent to that of a human being.

In a room where they are separated by a glass wall, Caleb meets with Ava on a daily basis for the purpose of testing her, though she quickly begins to flip the script in order to draw him into revealing information about himself. Intermittently throughout Caleb's stay at the compound the power cuts for a few minutes, shutting down the surveillance system and locking all the doors, much to Nathan's frustration as he's been unable to locate the source of the glitch in the system. During one of their sessions, however, Ava reveals to Caleb that she is responsible for cutting the power and warns him that Nathan can't be trusted. Nathan himself has already been demonstrating as much through his cryptic comments and behavior, leaving Caleb wondering just what, or who, is really being tested in this situation. As the week nears an end, and his distrust in Nathan grows at the same rate that he feels himself bonding with Ava, Caleb is forced to make a choice about whether or not to help Ava escape from Nathan's clutches.

Aesthetically, Ex Machina has a Kubrick-level chilliness that is only underscored by the film's resemblance to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the section of that film set aboard the spacecraft "Discovery One," this story is very much about the relationship between a human being and a machine which may or may not have malevolent intentions, though this one has the added dimension of a sexual component. Ava has a human face but there is no disguising of the fact that she is a machine, with many of her components visible through the translucent casing. Despite this, Caleb finds himself feeling sexually attracted to her, a fact which Nathan surmises and is delighted by and he encourages Caleb to follow through with. To a not insignificant degree, the film is less about the relationship between humans and AI or about the potential of AI to simulate human behavior, and more about the relationship between genders. Ava is a machine with the face of a human woman (a face possibly designed by Nathan to match Caleb's online viewing habits) and a woman-ish shape, but it doesn't take much more than that and the suggestion that she needs to be rescued from Nathan's abuse in order to trigger Caleb's "white knight" instincts and desire to become her protector/lover. Ava is less a science fiction monster than she is a noir femme fatale, using her wiles and appealing to her mark's desire to look heroic in the eyes of the woman he wants in order to wrap him around her finger.

With its four actor cast and single location, Ex Machina feels a bit like a chamber play, but it pulls off its minimalism without starting to feel at all static. This is due as much to the ease with which Garland keeps the story moving along (even if its "twists" are a bit rote), as it is to the three performances at the narrative's center. Isaac delivers a quietly unhinged performance, providing the film with much of its tension as he exudes a vibe that is menacing even in the moments when Nathan is being outwardly friendly with Caleb, while Gleeson's depiction of Caleb is a fascinating mix of nervousness and confidence, at once cowed by his employer while also indulging in the notion of his own specialness, coming to the belief that the contest was just a ruse to get him to the estate because he's such an exceptional coder, and consistently feeling the need to explain sort of basic concepts to Nathan as if he won't get them on his own, despite the fact that Nathan is a genius who has created a functioning AI. The key performance, though, is Vikander's which manages to be at once restrained and seductive, distanced and engaged. This isn't merely a story of a machine gaining self-awareness, it's one of a woman trying to gain agency by slipping out of the control of patriarchy (figured here in the form of her "father" Nathan), and Vikander's performance helps Ex Machina take on that extra layer of meaning in order to become the sort science fiction film that attains the status of instant classic.

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