Ex Machina

Reviewed By Greg Ursic
Posted 04/26/15 17:35:05

"Nothing artificial about the intelligence here."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It was 1986, and as university students will do, we were sitting in our floor lounge discussing profound subjects and trying to outthink one another. The subject turned to Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” project and we took turns shooting it to pieces because everything from the nuclear powered lasers to antimatter weapons that formed the backbone of the system bordered on science fiction. We then turned to the ridiculousness of the super computer needed to control the entire thing seamlessly – as the current pc’s were essentially glorified typewriters that could render a wire drawing of a shuttlecraft if you left it alone for several hours (and it didn’t crash). It was at this point that Sean, the smartest human I’ve ever known, noted -without the slightest hint of sarcasm - “but once they’ve cracked artificial intelligence, anything is possible. That is of course until the machines realize we’re unnecessary and wipe us out. “ Flash forward three decades, and the notion of a true AI system has become plausible, so much so that legions of the world’s brightest minds have banded together to demand oversight before we let the genie out of the bottle. The question is will we learn before the machines do?

Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) is ecstatic when he learns that he’s won the company lottery. The prize? A week with the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO. Caleb begins to question his “good fortune” when he’s dropped off by helicopter in the middle of nowhere, but dismisses those doubts after meeting Nate (Oscar Isaac), his idol and enigmatic host. Caleb also learns that there’s much more to their simple meet and greet; he has a week to test Nate’s latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander) a walking, talking automaton that looks decidedly female and may be the first creation to possess true artificial intelligence. As the days progress however, the real question becomes who is testing whom?

Directing a film using a script that you’ve written is a risky endeavour, as it’s so easy to lose perspective, yet writer/director Alex Garland skillfully navigates the potential pitfalls. It is such a pleasure to watch a movie about a complicated subject that doesn’t pander to the audience and simultaneously avoids being dryly esoteric. Garland refuses to let Ex Machina be pigeonholed - equal parts sci-fi flick, character study and thriller, it is also a study in contrasts with gorgeous, verdant exteriors balanced by the ultra-modern almost clinical stylings of Nate's home (actually a hotel in Norway) where the bulk of the “action” takes place.

Without a surfeit of special effects to distract viewers and minimalist nature, it’s essential that the cast can maintain the illusion of the film’s conceit or it will come off as gimmicky or worse. Thankfully they prove more than up for the task: Gleason captures Caleb’s clued in yet clueless character succinctly, and you’re never quite sure if he knows what he’s doing or what his role truly is, while Isaac provides the perfect foil as the unpredictable off-kilter genius/master manipulator. It is Vikander who faces the greatest challenges, as she must strike the right balance between naiveté and cunning and be convincing as a cyborg - needless to say she nails every aspect of her character.

Ex Machina is a contemplative piece that is deliberately paced (i.e. slow), well-written, seamlessly directed and brilliantly acted that is simultaneously thought i provoking and entertaining and without a doubt this is one of the smartest films you’ll see this year.

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