Drama Ex Machina

'Ex Machina' Film Review: A modern day Frankenstein that's elegantly simply, yet ever so haunting

April 24, 2015Ben MK

"One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction."


Artificial intelligence has received a fair amount of exposure on the big screen lately. From recent films like Transcendence and Chappie to the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, there's no shortage of movies depicting the rise of a sentient, artificial being while also attempting to deal with some of the broader ethical issues such a breakthrough implies. So what makes the latest such movie, Ex Machina, so special? It's a simple story rich with complex ideas — not just about A.I., but about humanity in general.

Best known for films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, screenwriter Alex Garland's directorial debut revolves around three principle characters: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a 26-year-old computer programmer slogging away for an internet search giant called Bluebook; Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a programming genius and Bluebook's reclusive, bald and bearded, billionaire founder; and Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's state-of-the-art robotic creation, a creature half-woman and half-machine in appearance.

When Caleb wins a company-sponsored contest to meet Nathan and spend a week hanging out with him at his secluded, subterranean home — tucked away amongst acres of Alaskan wilderness stretching for as far as the eye can see — he has no idea that he's actually being recruited to act as the human component in a Turing Test, to help Nathan determine Ava's self-awareness by spending the next seven days conversing with her, then reporting back to his employer with his impressions.

As Caleb spends more and more time with Ava, however, he finds it harder and harder to remain objective. He grows emotionally attached, which begs the question — could Ava genuinely feel the same way about him, or is she simply emulating emotion? Alternatively, could she be manipulating him to facilitate her escape? And what about Nathan himself? Ava warns Caleb that her creator can't be trusted, that he has eyes and ears everywhere — CCTV cameras that observe their every move and listen in on their every word — but just what exactly is his endgame, and what is he hiding?

Ex Machina's mysteries are both numerous and unsettling, but it's best not to know too much about them at the outset. Suffice to say, Garland keeps audiences invested in them until the very end, steadily building the suspense at almost every turn. The film's mystique is also enhanced by its claustrophobic setting. Nearly the entire story unfolds within the confines of Nathan's windowless, underground abode, where access is strictly controlled by electronic key card, leaving both Caleb and the audience wondering about what may be lurking behind closed doors.

But of course, what makes or breaks a film such as this are the performances, and the trio of Vikander, Gleeson and Isaac bring plenty to the table. It's tempting to think of their characters as remodeled versions of Blade Runner's Rachael, Deckard and Tyrell, but the actors bring such psychological depth to these familiar archetypes that any comparisons quickly fade. The end result blends sex, science fiction and horror into an electrifying, modern day Frankenstein tale. Indeed, the subject matter may not be anything new, but Garland's take on it is certainly one that will stick with you.

Ex Machina releases April 24th, 2015 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 48 Mins.

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