There is something dark at the heart of all technology that we have unwittingly placed there, concealing it in a wrapping of humankind’s starry-eyed aspirations for a brighter future. Science fiction meanwhile represents the mirror darkly– pleasant technologies of today are the moral quagmires of tomorrow. Rarely is the future as shown in film a place of wonder and joy. “Ex Machina” exists on the dark side of this reflection in a place of moral ambiguity. It is a philosophy lesson with the trappings of a techno-thriller.
The film opens with a silent montage of programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an inter-company lottery. He sits in his desk chair, earbuds dangling, his face betraying a dazed bewilderment. Soon a helicopter is whisking him away to a secret locale, a lush, verdant expanse of green spreading beneath in all directions. Smith wonders to the pilot when they will reach “his estate.”
“We’ve been flying over his estate for two hours,” shouts back the pilot.
Nestled somewhere in the ambiguously beautiful wilderness is the techno-fortress home of entrepreneur/inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The thuggishly eccentric Bateman has just invented the world’s first artificial intelligence– a cause for celebration Smith imagines.
“If you’ve created a conscious machine that’s not the history of man,” Smith says. “it’s the history of gods.”
Bateman’s haunted, deadened eyes tells a different story. So too will, Ava, his female robotic AI, ominously sealed away in the bowels of the compound.
“Ex Machina” is the creation of writer Alex Garland, who makes his directorial debut here. The direction is unremarkable and in fact, the film feels at times as if it could easily exist as a high-concept stage play, as the narrative primarily concerns extensive conversations between Smith and Bateman, and Smith and Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a wondrous trick of CGI, with Vikander’s face exposed on a ethereal robotic frame. Her performance is poised perfectly above the uncanny valley– her movements containing a subtly redundant quality, her face emotive but restrained. Ava is not just something extraordinary in this context. She is something new.
Also present is Garland’s penchant for stories that quietly reveal the darkest parts of human nature when they are placed deep in morally gray territories. That things are unwell in Bateman’s compound is no secret. The lumbering wunderkind is never without a strong drink in his hand, and he works over a heavybag with an unsettling rage. The spiderwebbed crack in the glass separating Smith and Ava tells a deeply troubling tale wordlessly. Curious power-outages leaves him trapped in unmonitored conversations with the AI that are tense and troubling. The film is a slow burn in this regard, doling out the truth of the situation in bite-sized pieces. Yet, it is just when the narrative reaches a boil with a ghastly revelation– a thriller poised to payoff in its third act that the end comes swiftly and without much to-do. The outcome is gruesome, but feels more like a soft deflation than the frenetic finale the story deserves.
“Ex Machina” like any good sci-fi film ponders the nature of our very existence, and the ‘should’ versus the ‘could’ of our incumbent technology. The answers here are grim, and forgo delving into the ‘how’ of a steeply futuristic bipedal humanoid robot works so flawlessly in a world where cell phone reception is sparse and home computers inexplicably crash. This is wise, as otherwise the work is isolating and affective, sidestepping a quagmire of plausibility.
The other side of Garland’s looking glass is dark, yet none so much as that found in the hearts and minds of men. When the singularity finally does occur, robots are going to have to get in line. We’ve already got this existential nightmare covered.