Over the past month or so, two movies about artificial intelligence have been released. In March, we got Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie,” which was clunky, recycled, and obsolete. Now we get Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” which is slick, inventive, and a total upgrade in every way. It’s like comparing an iPod to a Zune. Both products basically have the same foundation, but one is plainly a better purchase than the other. Where “Chappie” will fade from your memory as fast as the Zune’s shelf life, “Ex Machina” will stick with you for some time.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer who’s selected to participate in an innovative experiment. He travels to a secluded dwelling in the mountains where he meets his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Drunk on wine, beer, and his own genius, Nathan informs Caleb that he’s made a breakthrough in technological evolution and human evolution too. Nathan has invented a functioning android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s job to test the humanoid machine on both an intellectual level and emotional level. The closer he gets to Ava and Nathan, however, the clearer it becomes that neither is what they seem.
Alex Garland distinguished himself as a gifted writer with films like “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine.” His directorial debut has the essence of a stage play, relying more on absorbing dialog than in your face visuals. Of course the special effects here are striking nonetheless, despite only having a limited budget to work with. It also helps that Garland has a superb ensemble to give his characters heart.
This is a transcendent turn for Vikander, who brings Ava to life with captivating body language and speech. Ranging from cold and brooding to curious and affectionate, you’re not sure if Ava is developing real feelings for Caleb or is just manipulating him. Just as enigmatic as Ava is Isaac’s Nathan, who obviously isn’t telling his underling everything. At the center of it all is Caleb, either the smartest man in the room or the biggest fool.
Garland has made a film with the ambiguity of “Under the Skin,” the craft of “Blade Runner,” and the gripping storytelling of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. His script goes beyond forcing a cliché narrative down our throats about man playing god. At its core, this is a movie about ideas that will get the hamster wheel in anybody’s brain running. The audience is constantly guessing everyone’s motive and who can be trusted. All of these characters are rats in a maze, even if some don’t realize it. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t spell out whom we should be routing to find the cheese. “Ex Machina” demonstrates that we might be able to draw a line between artificial intelligence and intelligence itself, but drawing a line between good guys and bad guys can be much more difficult. This helps to not only make its characters more believable, but more human as well.
Nick Spake is a graduate of Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past ten years, reviewing movies on his website, NickPicksFlicks.com.