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Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Directed by: Alex Garland

Premise: A young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited by a reclusive tech wizard (Oscar Isaac) to participate in an experiment with an artificially intelligent machine (Alicia Vikander).

What Works: While Hollywood studios have been putting out a lot of big budget science fiction spectacles in the past few years like Star Trek Into Darkness and The Avengers, there has also been a quiet trend of smaller scaled sci-fi movies such as Source Code, Looper, Snowpiercer, and Her. These pictures have told stories no less (and often more) compelling than their tent pole counterparts and they have broken out of the blockbuster mold to explore interesting ideas and dramatize the relationship between humanity and technology. Ex Machina is another example of this trend and it is a terrific piece of sci-fi storytelling that is also a philosophical thought experiment. In Ex Machina a computer programmer is invited to the secluded home of an eccentric billionaire and set to work interacting with an artificially intelligent machine. The story taps interesting philosophical ideas such as the Turing Test and it successfully melds those ideas with human drama. The filmmakers are able to do this because the ideas of Ex Machina aren’t separate from the drama; they are central to it. Our idealistic computer programmer, played by Domhnall Gleeson, attempts to determine if Eva, played by Alicia Vikander, has actually achieved consciousness or if this robot is just imitating those around her. Ex Machina adds two interesting components to that problem. First is the way in which people project humanity onto inhuman objects. As Eva and the programmer interact, it is unclear if her responses are genuine or if the programmer sees humanity in her because that’s what he is looking for. This leads to the second issue tacked onto the film’s central question: the role of sex and gender. Eva is presented as a female and she wears feminine clothes. The film subtly explores the ways in which Eva’s perceived femaleness distorts the programmer’s ability to assess her humanity. In many respects, the questions at the center of Ex Machina and the answers that emerge are similar to 2014’s Gone Girl; both movies tap into the assumptions we make about people, how those assumptions shape our reactions, and reveal the limits of our ability to empathize and understand others.

What Doesn’t: Mainstream science fiction movies have been overtaken by the action genre to the point that sci-fi has largely been purged of any interesting ideas. Instead, movies like the Transformers series use the futuristic settings and high technology of the science fiction genre but only for the purposes of stringing together action set pieces and the remakes of Robocop and Total Recall watered down what were compelling ideas and drained them of anything really challenging. Ex Machina is about as far from Transformers as a movie can get. It is more in the company of titles like Moon and so viewers who gravitate to the thrills of movies like The Avengers may find Ex Machina too cerebral. The intelligence of Ex Machina is to the movie’s credit but it may talk past viewers who expect something along the lines of a superhero movie. As an idea-driven science fiction film, Ex Machina puts some new wrinkles on familiar concepts but there is not a lot here that is new. The science fiction genre has frequently dealt with the problem of artificial intelligence from Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner. The filmmakers of Ex Machina don’t say much about artificial intelligence that hasn’t been said before but they do use that topic very well and link it to other ideas and that, combined with an engaging story, is enough to keep the material fresh.

Bottom Line: Ex Machina is an exceptional movie. The film is well made and tightly directed and it is both intellectually and dramatically engaging. This a provocative work that presents the audience with distressing questions about technology and especially about what it is to be human.

Episode: #540 (May 3, 2015)