The best of science fiction, like the best of all art, rises above its setting and asks questions that are uncomfortable, and potentially, unanswerable. Ex Machina is the best of science fiction. That it does all that and ensures that 110 minutes rush by raises it to classic status. You have to see this film.
Set, pretty much, in our world as it is today, but one where the Google equivalent is called Bluebook, Ex Machina begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a staff lottery as a result of which he is whisked away to the remote and inaccessible home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) , founder of Bluebook. An intense billionaire whose daily cycle appears to be beating a hangover with exercise, controlling his world and then getting toasted, Nathan peppers his dialogue with welcoming phrases like ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ but is never a man to be trusted. He introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautifully faced robot, who Nathan believes could pass the Turing test which is the Rubicon for artificial intelligence.
Ex Machina, scripted and directed by Alex Garland, uses the meetings between Ava and Caleb, and Caleb’s subsequent conversations with Nathan, to ratchet up the tension. These are then interspersed with CCTV screen footage as Caleb struggles to understand what is going on and the motivations of the ‘people’ in this beautiful but clinical home. Revelations build upon revelations and the story turns in multiple ways and, brilliantly, Ex Machina never pulls a punch. This is a rare film that takes its original ideas, expands them and then goes where they lead rather than finding an easier path. It is, despite that, watchable and compelling.
It is also uncomfortable viewing. Garland has a lot to say about, for example, how men view women. It is no accident that Nathan has built a beauty. Garland’s direction allows a male gaze but also allows for the machines to know about it and for it, like every other emotional tic people believe make them ‘people’, to be analysed, interpreted, open to debate, subverted.
The ending more than meets the expectations set by the film and leaves you open-mouthed as the credits roll. The quality of the acting is top-drawer throughout and Garland shows a master’s eye as he guides the viewer through the locations and narrative. This is an example of a film that deserves the gushing reviews it received and one worth catching now it’s out and about in the download world.
Just don’t expect your thinking about it to end once the final copyright notice comes up.