Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Production Co: DNA Films
Director: Alex Garland
Producer: Andrew Macdonald
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

After the dramatically inert Transcendence and the well made but only tangentially science-based Chappie, might Ex Machina finally be the film artificial intelligence geeks have been waiting for?

If not, it comes the closest any other has in a long time. It even grounds itself in reality by referencing the new world of dotcom billionaires investing money into far-reaching programs like private spaceflight and AI.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is the indescribably rich and well-resourced but kind of blokey head of a search engine who invites a programmer in his company, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) to his estate to take part in a unique experiment.

The pretense is that low-level coder Caleb has won a company lottery to travel to the beautiful mountain forest home of the enigmatic executive, but when he arrives after being dropped off in the middle of a lush valley by a helicopter and told 'follow the river', Nathan tells him why he's really there.

The two men bond over beers in a house that must have been a dream for director Alex Garland and production designer Mark Digby to put together – all sweeping concrete surfaces, glass and sparse furnishings – when Nathan tells Caleb he's been working on artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to help him test it.

Caleb meets the robot housing the AI, which is in the shape of a winsome young woman that calls herself Ava. It's played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), who wears a grey body suit and some amazing CGI that reveals robotic internal components.

During their sessions talking and getting to know each other, Caleb is amazed at how responsive Ava is to real-time conversation (one of the benchmarks of AI), and while he asks Nathan to tell him all about the algorithms and computing behind it, Nathan insists Caleb just talk about how he feels about Ava.

It gradually reveals Nathan's apparent plan – to have constructed AI that's so realistic a person won't only believe it's alive, but respond to it emotionally – in this case, by making Ava so pretty and vulnerable Caleb starts to fall in love with her.

But there are dark shadows in Nathan's house. Every now and then the power shuts out, generators kick in and the emergency lighting turning the walls blood red seems to symbolise a more dangerous truth about Ava and Nathan. The sense of foreboding isn't helped when Ava takes the opportunity (while the cameras are apparently down) to warn Caleb that Nathan is lying to him about the truth behind his AI program.

Caleb doesn't know where to turn. Every time he demands answers from Nathan, the latter has a reasonable explanation. But he also has a habit of turning up at opportune moments when Caleb intends to do something like use the phone or go through a door Nathan's said is off limits.

But everything Ava says makes him believe she's self-aware and a prisoner, and as he falls more in love with her, Caleb starts to lose reason.

Most – if not all – stories about man creating intelligent machines are by their nature Promethean myths where we find (or fear) that the machines, once advanced enough, are a threat to us. It's been the backbone of films and books from Frankenstein to The Terminator, and with good reason. Inventing an AI that happily vacuums your floor or drives a car but doesn't turn bloodthirsty and want to overthrow the human race isn't very dramatic.

It means, however, that movies from this subset of sci-fi only have one way to go. They raise interesting thematic and narrative questions but eventually descend into being-chased-by-monsters thrillers.

Alex Garland (who came to prominence writing Danny Boyle's sci-fi films 28 Days Later and Sunshine), directing from his own script, does as good a job as it's probably possible to do to avoid such a common trope. When the true intentions of Nathan – and indeed Ava – are revealed, the movie's still answering the ethical and scientific questions it asks.

Not that it doesn't look and sound like a monster movie, especially towards the end. The quietly thrumming building around them belies a strong and determined heart that won't be stopped in getting what it wants. It's an effective metaphor for Ava's softly spoken manner and the denouement of her own search for meaning.

The location and premise allow for a very effective stageshow-type performance space for Star Wars: The Force Awakens costars Isaac and Gleeson. Isaac is an effortless talent, Gleeson handles high emotion less well (it seems to be the American accent tripping him up), and Vikander's work is mostly done by the effects, staging and lighting – she only has to speak in a slight lilt and occasionally cock her head.

The clean lines, strong colours and non-specific architecture decouple the story from any particular place and time (even though it's apparently set in the very near future) and they also serve to let the foreground action drive the narrative, much of the dressing like 2D backdrops to be rolled onto and off the stage to save us looking at a blank wall.

The soft, muted focus makes Ex Machina look like it might itself have been programmed rather that shot, and – along with a script devoid of high emotion and histrionics - the design and look of the film is one that's pleasant on the eyes but doesn't detract from the triple play between the characters.

There are too many questions to answer about how AI could exist that any movie could answer, let alone a thriller, so don't expect a science lesson. Ex Machina is definitely about the characters, but it's a genuine pleasure when a sci-fi story respects the real world and science that might one day lead to it.

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