You might have heard of Ex Machina from the viral marketing campaign they ran using Tinder at SXSW earlier in the year: Tinder users that swiped right for ‘Ava’ unwittingly found themselves interacting with what was ultimately a bot advertising the film.
While this is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, he was the writer behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It’s easy to see the relationship those films share with Ex Machina – there’s a slow-burning quality about it, with ruminations on intelligence, humanity and love. These ideas are really what carry the film – it’s a low budget film with a small cast and very limited special effects. The lack of flashy effects – there are no car chases, explosions or really anything ostentatious – adds to the intimacy and quiet build of it all.
The core of the film is this: awkward but pleasant enough coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to administer a Turing test to the android Ava (Alicia Vikander), created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, the founder of Bluebook, the world’s biggest search engine. Flown out to Nathan’s secure, isolated home and research facility, Caleb has the honour of trying to determine whether Nathan’s creation is truly artificial intelligence, or just a very clever approximation of it.
What follows is a psychological game between Nathan, Ava and Caleb. Nathan is the jocular dude genius who lifts weights and drinks and who you want to be friends with, but as the film progresses, it’s clear there’s something off about him, and about the entire place. Ava is the beautiful, delicate android woman who wants to be human, and wants to be free in the world – but at what cost? And Caleb is a puppy dog, initially naive and wide-eyed but becoming more wary and more mistrustful as he discovers more about Ava and Nathan.
You don’t need to know what the Turing test is, or know anything about coding or artificial intelligence to enjoy this film because as you’d hope, all the pertinent ideas are explained and explored. Of course, if you do have an interest in AI, Ex Machina will intrigue. It takes a very different tack to Chappie, another recent AI film, and definitely from Age of Ultron, and from most other science fiction films. Ex Machina is far more cerebral in its approach to AI. There are no grand plots to rule the world or even to rob banks; Ex Machina asks what makes us human, and is more of a character study, examining the relationships between the three characters.
An aspect of Ex Machina that did trouble me was the depiction of the older robot models; they’re all attractive women, which canonically makes sense since a dude built them, but there’s definitely a thesis-worthy discussion of how the film depicts them voyeuristically while subtly critiquing that voyeurism and fetishisation of women as sex objects.
There’s an exquisite, unnerving, slow build up to the third act of the film, which is to be kind, a little odd. Garland’s Sunshine had a similar problem in which the third act seemed to be at odds with the rest of the film; Ex Machina‘s ending is strange because for most of the film, it’s unclear where the story is going. There are betrayals and a truly dazzling final showdown.