Ex Machina has a thin story peppered with half-baked ideas and unanswered questions, but this modern Frankenstein is still an intriguing and engaging sci-fi thriller thanks to clever camerawork,  strong performances and stylish production design.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated–and more deceptive–than the two men could have imagined. (C) A24Ex Machina is a rare film that puts science in sci-fi, risking the attention of mainstream moviegoers. It’s all worth it though, as the film manages to be both an intriguing discussion on artificial intelligence and an engaging thriller.

The film explores ideas that most sci-fi films with robots wouldn’t dare touch. It tackles the boundaries between control and oppression as well as artificial simulation and consciousness. When does programming end and self-directed learning begin?

Thankfully, the script isn’t full of jargon or pseudo-science babble. Nathan insists on simple answers from Caleb. In one scene he uses a painting to explain his thoughts, rather some holographic representation of his innovation.

The production design adds a sophisticated yet ominous setting for discussion. The dimly lit house/research bunker has a minimalist interior which includes opaque glass doors, windowless rooms, and a security system that bathes everything in red.

Ex Machina doesn’t rely on CGI and uses dynamic camera angles for visual storytelling. This video (spoilers included) provides a great scene breakdown.

The musical score adds another layer of foreboding, thanks to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who is an instrumentalist for one of my favorite bands – Portishead.

The cast does a great job in sustaining the ambiguous motivations of their characters. Domhnall Gleeson adeptly plays a timid yet selfish nerd. Oscar Isaac keeps turning in good performances (including a much needed funny intermission), this time as a multi-millionaire dude bro that’s a stand in for young Silicon Valley C-suites. The star of the movie is undeniably Alicia Vikander, who moves in a robotic yet graceful pace while her internal motors hum in low eerie tones.  She imbues the self-aware Ava with enough humanity to identify with, while her gestures indicate something else.

While the movie does make an effort to tackle heady concepts, Ex Machina throws us a bunch of ideas that it doesn’t fully explore.

It takes a look at the objectification of women through Nathan, a guy with an Asian fetish who creates a female robot for “science”. But we barely know anything about the guy, except that he’s an isolated caveman who gets drunk every night.

There’s a lot of talk about sentience, singularity, and the unexpected algorithmic variations that blurs the line between woman and machine but they lead to nowhere. Nathan gave her enough raw data, but how did that lead to curiosity and intellectual independence?

The story is predictable and eventually turns into a typical thriller. This time around the final act is justified, even though the director’s previous works (see: Sunshine) has a pattern of falling apart in the last stretch. In the end, the movie doesn’t answer its own questions and leaves the audience with more.

There is no doubt that it is challenging film to watch, especially for people with a short attention span. If you’re looking for something to tickle your brain, then this is for you. Those who are searching for a grand visual spectacle need to find something else.

Still, Ex Machina is a bold film that doesn’t settle as an easily digestible sci-fi cash grab. It’s a refreshing take on the robot genre and a satisfying modern reboot of a literary classic. It’s able to accomplish what it sets out to do – make you look at the science instead of the spectacle – and leaves us with an important lesson that will become more important as technology advances.

The monster is a reflection of Frankenstein and therein lies the problem.

My Rating: 8/10

Poster by Francesco Francavilla

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