Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Image courtesy of A24.
Fear of technology has long been a staple of science fiction films, from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" to James Cameron's "Terminator" films and Alex Garland's (who wrote Danny Boyles's "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine") directorial debut "Ex Machina" is a film that is simpatico to this theme.

In the realm of science fiction, "Ex Machina" is more of a slow burn than a special effects spectacle, although the film's modest effects are fairly impressive. It's the type of film that builds and builds and just when you're sure you know where it's going, it sort of pulls the rug out from under you.

In the picture, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to work for a week with a brilliant, but reclusive, inventor named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is working on a top secret project. As it turns out, Nathan has created a highly intelligent A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he needs a subject to work with her to decide whether she has formed consciousness.

This is one of those films where one or more of the characters may or may not be playing one or more of the other characters and it's often difficult to decide who's scheming or being played. This is not giving anything away. In fact, I was almost positive I'd figured out what was going on about a quarter of the way into the film and turned out to be wrong. During one sequence, Nathan discusses "misdirection" with Caleb and this film does a masterful job of employing that technique.

Isaac is quickly becoming one of the most interesting young talents to watch - including his work in "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "A Most Violent Year" - and here he plays a character who is difficult to read, but remains all the while intriguing. Gleeson and Vikander are also impressive, especially the latter who manages to create a three-dimensional character from an individual who is not human.

Another refreshing element is that the film does not heavy handedly explore the nature of the "God complex" that Nathan's character displays. In other words, there are no scenes in which he is accused of toying with nature. There are obvious dangers involved in the experiment, some of which materialize toward the end, but the film doesn't display the type of paranoia toward advances in science often found in other examples of the genre.

Much like the recent "Predestination," "Ex Machina" is thought provoking in its subject matter, but also includes a human element that is often missing in movies of this type, such as the recent misfire "Transcendence." The picture is a calling card for Garland, who I hope will go on to do even greater things.

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