When programmer Caleb asks android Ava to draw him a picture of something she’s never seen before, he tells her; “I’m curious to see what you’ll choose.” Curiosity is the theme of Ex_Machina. It’s the driving force behind the storyline, it’s what pushes the characters forward and holds the audience captive. But as writer and director, Alex Garland proves curiosity isn’t always a good thing.
The idea that we will one day create artificial intelligence is hardly a new one, and yet Garland approaches it with a surprisingly refreshing angle. In his directorial debut, robots aren’t hell-bent on imprisoning humanity; they aren’t using their advanced technology to murder, and they aren’t even plotting a nuclear war which will destroy Earth. In fact, from the mind of Garland comes a surprisingly human robot in the form of Alicia Vikander’s Ava.
Trapped by her creator Nathan – a Zuckerberg-like genius played by Oscar Isaac – Ava finds herself meeting another human for the first time with the arrival of Caleb; aka Domhnall Gleeson. The supposed winner of a competition to visit the secluded mansion of his employer, Caleb is soon enthralled by the impressive Ava as he attempts to discover if she is self-aware. Thinking he’s part of one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of all time, it’s not until he builds a relationship with the fascinating android that he starts to question Nathan’s motives.
The storyline is a simplistic one and ultimately comes down to a question of who is telling the truth, but this is to the film’s advantage as anything more would detract from the compelling characters. Ex_Machina doesn’t need an in-depth web of multiple storylines because Ava, Nathan and Caleb are complex enough to hold the audiences full attention.
This does mean that most of the plots points the audience can predict if not guess, but instead of it becoming boring and predictable, you’ll find yourself just as curious as Caleb as to which paths Ava will choose. And just when you think you’ve discovered the disturbing truth behind the glossy facade, everything changes.
Ironically, Ex_Machina is really a film about humanity. About the choices we make, our desires and mistakes and Ava is the tool Garland uses to show us. From Ava wondering why it’s up to anyone whether she’s switched off, to the nude scenes, which really show the difference between her and Caleb’s reaction to the naked body, everything about her makes us look inwardly.
Oscar Isaac treads the line between intellectual and psychopath extremely convincingly, managing to switch between playboy and terroriser without it seeming false. With his strict workout schedule and nightly binge drinking, the audience can almost see for themselves the disturbing history of the character through Isaac’s fascinating performance.
Although Gleeson certainly holds his own as the lonely programmer who shifts between godlike worship of Nathan and adoration of his creation, he’s slightly overshadowed by his co-stars in Ex_Machina. It isn’t that his talent is lacking in this performance, more that there are just always more interesting things in the room than Caleb, something which is actually intrinsic to the character.
Undoubtedly, Alicia Vikander has the toughest part to realise when it comes to playing Ava, the focus of the film. Her portrayal of a robot who in turn, is giving a convincing impression of a human should not be taken lightly. The mixture of childlike innocence and human intellect, which are a part of Ava mean you can’t help but think about her as Caleb does, as a person. She is the wronged party, she is the victim, she’s even the hero of the film for a short time, but every step of the way you’re drawn in by Vikander’s superb performance.
As if the character wasn’t fascinating enough, the special effects which have turned Alicia Vikander into a robot are spectacular. With the body of a machine and the face of a human, it’s easy to see how she captures the attention of Caleb. Ava’s detailed physiology comes from visual effects company, Double Negative (who worked on Interstella), and makes her human moments all the more remarkable.
Ex_Machina isn’t just an entertaining film about the possibilities of AI. It questions the fundamentals of what it means to be human and in doing so Garland has created one of the most captivating films of the year. After 108 minutes of getting to know the characters in the most intimate of ways, you think you can predict their actions, but eventually the illusion is shattered in a chilling yet thrilling conclusion.