There is an immediate elegance to Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut about the psychological and moral ramifications of artificial intelligence research. It is the first really impressive science fiction movie since Sunshine (which Garland actually wrote), but although it’s genre classification is fiction, this story is of a cautionary nature – about the research and production of artificial intelligence, but more so, the inevitable future where we will have to ask these moral and ethical questions of ourselves.
In a industry with a constant stream of sequels, prequels, interquels, and any other quels you might think of, it’s refreshing to see a movie that treats its audience with the respect they deserve. Ex Machina doesn’t waste our time with unnecessary and expository plot- and character-set ups before it kicks off, but lets you – as the audience – bare witness and learn throughout the movie. It opens in a non-descriptive office complex, as Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets a pop-up notification on his computer, telling him he won first price in the office lottery. In the next scene he is taken to a remote cabin, surrounded by beautiful and flourishing meadows and forests, steep mountains and treacherous waterfalls. Here he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a billionaire researcher who, at the age of thirteen, wrote the code for BlueBook – the world’s most popular search engine. He resides in this facility to actualise yet another revolutionary research project; the construction of artificial intelligence, or, as we come to know it/her, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Masterfully played by Vikander, Ava becomes real. She has a beautiful face – curious and warm eyes looking back at all times – but it’s only artificial skin, placed over her metallic bodily frame. From a distance, silhouetted against a luminous wall, she looks real. When face to face with her however, a glass-plated abdomen reveals wires and lights underneath, always audible in her movements. The only audiovisual distraction from her humanity.
Artificial intelligence (herby referred to as AI) has been used as a narrative device in movies for decades, from icons like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the ethereal ambiguity associated with Harrison Ford’s Rick Decker in Blade Runner. Just a few weeks ago we saw Chappie in theatres, where a police droid was outfitted with an AI program, and even Steven Spielberg dabbled with it in the appropriately titled, AI. Artificial Intelligence from 2001.
There are traces of 2001 and Blade Runner in Ex Machina, but never does this feel cheap. On the contrary, Ex Machina feels unique and fully realised from beginning to end. As I stated in the first sentence of this review, there is an immediate elegance to this movie, rooted in its slick and clean interior architecture, the low-key, but tremendously powerful score, and last but not least its gleaning cinematography – equally interested in capturing the minute details of the narrative and character arcs, as it is in composing a beautiful frame, worthy of a place on the wall.
Its themes run so deep it becomes impossible to talk about them in this typical review format, as one tries not to reveal too much. It speaks volume about a movies complexity when this is the case. There are mysteries here, deep and dark. While some may critique its blatant disregard for traditional dramatic structures, from the first scene to the last, I feel Garland has mastered the art of subtlety, as I was transfixed and unnerved throughout – which is a rare occurrence for me. It’s a brilliant psychological examination/thriller. It’s a fantastical salute to history and the men who made it. It’s a cautionary tale about our future. It’s a magnus opus, and one I hope to revisit many times in the coming weeks.