Written & Directed by Alex Garland
Technology supposedly doubles every two years or so, which means that before long, we’ll get to the point where the development of artificial intelligence is a very real possibility. Perhaps the person who will eventually transform the world with the invention of a sentient being created by man is already alive. With artificial intelligence comes great responsibility however, and seeing a movie like Ex Machina serves the purpose of reflection on not just AI specifically, but also technology generally and the concept of human, of thought, of the morality of humanity and where we may be going not just as a society or a culture, but as a global community with a constantly growing populace and constantly shrinking disconnection from one another. The heightened sense of connectivity in the technological age has brought us together in some ways while keeping us distinctly distant in others.
In his first film as director, screenwriter Alex Garland crafts a tale of two men striving for a technological breakthrough. Blue Book is the world’s foremost internet search engine, founded by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wrote the first version of code when he was just a teenager. Now a recluse who lives in isolation on his lush and sprawling mountain estate, Nathan recruits one of his top young coders, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to help him with a new experiment, artificial intelligence. When Caleb arrives, he soon learns that he is there not as the winner of a workplace contest, but as a carefully chosen man set to test the delicately intricate and complex Ava (Alica Vikander), the first known AI in the world.
What Garland has crafted far exceeds whatever expectations I had coming into the film. As a screenwriter, it should be no surprise that it is his script that is the backbone of the production, but his deft handle behind the camera adds a different dimension to the story that can only be described as a unified, unique vision. The visuals and aesthetics marry perfectly with the type of reflection and tense conflict happening between Nathan and Caleb, and the psychological, moral conflict within the humanity of each. It should be said that while I found the real world correlations and moral questions raised by the film to be the most stimulating aspect of the experience, Ex Machina is a darn entertaining film as well, something that is not always the easiest to pull off.
Central to the film’s ability to entertain is its ability to draw the viewer in and keep them interested in the characters, and on the edge of their seat, waiting to find the next development in the story. The entire cast delivers powerfully real performances throughout. Oscar Isaac portrays Nathan with the edge you might expect a mad genius recluse to exude, which balances the more predictable and logical Caleb, whose protagonist leanings make him a character not just to root for, but to relate to in a sense that he is the everyman, albeit a genius in his own right, facing the very scary and very real threat of technology brought on by the developments of a man, Nathan, who has sought to change the world in isolation, without the consultation of moral or social thought. Alica Vikander is perfectly naïve and seemingly pure as Ava, whose world has consisted of the knowledge of one man, her creator, up until the point that Caleb enters her life.
In many ways I see a favorable parallel between Ex Machina and Henry David Thoreau’s famed work Walden. Set in the reaches of remote forest, and living apart from society, Nathan seeks to find the truth in humanity in order to develop artificial intelligence and advance humanity with it. However, the two works are distinctly different in the fact that by looking inward, Thoreau was in fact seeking truth outward, a societal truth. Meanwhile Nathan is looking inward with very little consideration for what he is doing outward, failing to consider what it means to develop a true AI. The automation of chaos on display in a film that, from a technical perspective, feels so decidedly imagined and constructed by Garland works in concert with the important questions facing the current advancement of technology. When do we stop and think about the privacy concerns of technology, of the militaristic concerns? When do we stop and consider the morality of a thing, as opposed to simply doing because we can?
***1/2 – Great