1 hours, 50 min
As computers get faster and the internet connects more and more of the world at faster and faster speeds, the subject of Artificial Intelligence becomes more and more ubiquitous in popular culture. Just about any science fiction movie or book I come across lately addresses the issue in one way or another, even when it’s not central to the plot. Everyone, it seems, is curious about what AI will look like if, or rather, when, we finally achieve it. This week I saw an excellent, if somewhat chilling, take on the question from Alex Garland, writer of such high concept sci-fi as “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” With only four characters, “Ex Machina” encapsulates the highly problematic and potentially volatile relationship between mankind and our mechanical progeny.
Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, mid-level programmer for BlueBook, a Google-like search-engine company that has its fingers in a variety of different high-tech pies. When Caleb wins a company-wide contest, he is thrilled, but a little apprehensive at the idea of spending a week with the company’s reclusive founder at his remote Alaska hideaway. The transport in is by helicopter, but Caleb is surprised to learn he will be dropped a few miles from the house and is instructed to follow the river. Upon finally arriving, our hero is greeted by Nathan, played excellently by up-and-coming star Oscar Isaac, who is less a geeky Bill Gates type and more a macho kind of “bro.” Gradually, it is explained that Caleb is not there simply to hang out with his boss, but rather to take part in a revolutionary experiment. Nathan, it seems, has perfected AI and she exists in the form of Ava, a beautiful construction, part sleek robotics and part sensual femininity. Caleb is to administer a Turing Test, a series of questions designed to determine whether the interviewer can tell whether he or she is addressing a computer or a real person. The idea is that if you can’t tell, then the AI is real — if you can tell, it’s just clever programming.
The test, which is really just a concept, was the brainchild of famed computer pioneer Alan Turing after World War II. Turing thought artificial intelligence was just a matter of time, and theorized the test as a way to identify it. Caleb, after agreeing to participate in the experiment, meets Ava, played with an interesting mix of cool machinery and fearful vulnerability by Alicia Vikander. Ava is eager to speak with Caleb, a glass wall separating the two, and at first it’s not certain how the test will go. She is obviously a highly advanced computer, but not necessarily actually intelligent. But when a random power outage cuts the feed to the cameras that Nathan has observing the interviews, Ava changes, abruptly warning Caleb not to trust Nathan, and that all is not what it seems.
“Ex Machina” is a nice slow-burn kind of movie, where time is spent on character development, and the plot moves leisurely, except when it doesn’t. Isaac and Gleeson are great together, playing the awkward tension just right. Gleeson’s Caleb goes from timid employee to bitter peer perfectly. Vikander is also very good. I was impressed that she is able to maintain the a level of uncertainty as to the true nature of her character throughout the film. The true star of the film, however, is writer/director Garland, who turns what could be a short “Twilight Zone” kind of tale into a gripping character study. The film boasts a gorgeous palette as well, with the cold whites and grays of Nathan’s futuristic home contrasting beautifully with the bright greens and blues of the Alaskan wilderness.
“Ex Machina” is a small enough film that the best we got here on the Kenai Peninsula was a limited release, but it speaks to how surprised the studio was at the positive response the film has received from critics and audiences alike that it was given a theatrical release at all. Today, most movies of this size are exclusively VOD (video on demand), bypassing the theaters entirely. In the last few months, however, both “Ex Machina” and the surprise horror film “It Follows” have earned wide theatrical releases based purely on positive word of mouth. I’m all about seeing movies in the theatre, so I’m hoping this trend continues. “Ex Machina” is a great example of how good smaller filmmaking, and small-scale science fiction in particular, can be.
“Ex Machina” is rated R for language, sexual situations, nudity, and brief violence.