Sci-fi loves the concept of artificial intelligence. It’s been a staple of the genre for as long as it’s existed. It does pose some interesting questions, such as “What constitutes life?” and “Is it okay to task an intelligent being with making me a burrito at 4 in the morning?” The latest film to take a stab at this rich concept is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson*) works for some Google/Apple hybrid called Bluebook. Ex Machina wastes no time cutting to the main plot as he wins some contest or something and is flown off to Bluebook’s gazillionaire CEO’s state-sized estate. He’s won a week hanging out with eccentric genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) testing his latest stab at A.I.: Ava (Alicia Vikander). Yes, a whole week testing controversial cutting edge technology in complete isolation from the rest of the world. This can only end well.

*spelling Domhnall hurts my brain.

Gleeson is fine as Caleb, although the character is a bit of a blank slate. He’s there for that good old audience POV. Vikander is quite good as Ava, a difficult role to pull off as she has to play a robot trying to be human. Ex Machina ultimately belongs to Oscar Isaac. The man was made to play bizarre brilliant rich guy. Nathan Bateman is both vulnerable and dangerous. He’s simultaneously charming and a human trainwreck. Isolation and the search for the next big thing are taking a toll on him. He drinks himself to sleep most nights. He works out like crazy. Bateman is doing everything he can to keep himself together as he tries to perfect the robotic mind.

As pretty as A.I. might be, it’s still a dangerous concept. I have watched Terminator 2 approximately 538 times. I know the perils of artificial intelligence coming back as Robert Patrick and trying to stab me while I’m drinking milk from the carton with his morphing metal arms. No, no, Ex Machina obviously isn’t Robert Patrick and Arnold Schwarzenegger shooting at each other in the back hallway of a shopping mall. Ex Machina is Rick Deckard wondering just where the line between man and machine ends. The danger comes from delving too far into the tech and the question of just what life is. It’s a thoughtful, creepy science fiction approach straight out of the Phillip K. Dick playbook.

Ex Machina specializes in the concept of dangerous beauty. Bateman’s compound is located in a gorgeous stretch of land with towering mountains, lush greens, and majestic waterfalls everywhere. Yet, it’s completely cut off from everything else. The only way in and out is via helicopter. His home is gorgeous, but sometimes there’s this whole thing where the power goes out and you’re locked in your room until it kicks back in. It’s fine, bro! Then there’s Ava herself (itself?). She’s got the face of a supermodel. She speaks like a fairly normal person. But is she a she? Is she a thinking, feeling person?

The main failing for me was that I never quite bought into Ava like Caleb did. It’s understandable that Caleb becomes obsessed with this beautiful technological advancement. He is living it, experiencing it. As an audience member, however, I felt disconnected, all too aware of the fact that Ava is A.I. Perhaps Oscar Isaac was simply too charismatic as Nathan Bateman. Perhaps I’m just a robot racist. I’ve got plenty of robotic friends, I swear!

Ex Machina isn’t as mind-blowing as something like Blade Runner and certainly isn’t on the scale of a work like Kubrick and Spielberg’s A.I., but it is a very good, very pretty look at what defines life.


Spoilery Stuff and Notes

  • I really want to see a sketch where Jason Mantzoukas plays the Oscar Isaac character.
  • Bateman’s main fault lies in how he treats the robots as little more than sex objects. Really though, you know that’s the first thing that mankind will do with artificial intelligence. “Yeah, this tech is great, but will it make me have an orgasm?”
  • It gives away too much about the plot, but I was really struck by just how casual the few moments of violence are in the film. The knife that Kyoko and Ava stick in Bateman just slides in, as if he’s nothing at all.
  • Together, with Tony Stark, Nathan Bateman accidentally creates the ultimate homicidal sexy A.I. Then get really, really drunk. Ex of Ultron? Or is that film just about Ultron going through a bad breakup?