Mark Reviews Movies

Ex Machina


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno

MPAA Rating: R (for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 4/10/15 (limited); 4/17/15 (wider); 4/24/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 16, 2015

Ex Machina is essentially a chamber drama about the secrets held and the lies told by two men and a machine that might as well be human. The movie is admirable in its commitment to idea-driven storytelling. It is also frustrating in the way those ideas are wholly restricted to matters of the story. The ideas here don't breathe. They simply take us from one plot point to the next.

It's not that Screenwriter Alex Garland's directorial debut isn't ambitious. The movie raises plenty of questions about the nature of consciousness and, by extension, the nature of whatever it is that makes human beings human. It does so without the visual distractions so common in modern science-fiction filmmaking, in which a desire to create visual-effects spectacle so often surpasses the fundamental purpose of putting forth the big queries of which science-fiction is capable of proposing.

There's a decided minimalism to the whole affair that is at once striking in its aesthetic cohesion and freeing for Garland's objectives. We note the movie's aesthetic qualities, but then we move forward from them.

In its own modest way, the movie is a notable accomplishment in effects and design. We're entranced by the story's setting, which is a mansion/research facility built around and incorporating elements of the natural surroundings (e.g., the rocky terrain makes up an entire wall of one room). We're struck by the sterile nature of the house's research area, where panes of thick glass in a key room are just as imprisoning as the claustrophobic stone walls in our protagonist's living quarters, which seem more tomblike than livable.

We're especially captivated with the simplicity of the design of the machine at the heart of the movie's primary concerns—an artificial intelligence that possesses the shape and form of a young woman. Only its face, hands, and feet look human, though. Its chest, pelvis, and the top of its head are of some metallic material, and we can see through its abdomen, arms, and legs to see the circuitry inside.

Nathan (a commanding Oscar Isaac), the owner of a seemingly infinitely profitable search-engine company, created the machine in this way. He wants to prove that his creation can pass for genuine human intelligence, even when the observer is forced with the awareness that it is undoubtedly a machine.

The tester of his theory is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee of Nathan's company who wins a contest for a week-long stay at the boss' residence. Caleb learns the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to be the human component in a Turing Test to determine whether or not the creation has genuine consciousness. It could be one of the great milestones in the history of man, Nathan argues. Not just man, Caleb responds, it would be part of the "history of gods." Nathan, a drunken ego-maniac, later misquotes that, assigning himself to the pantheon of the gods.

His creation is the pretty-faced Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a surprisingly layered performance). It seems to be a "she" (Nathan brags that she's capable of sex, although his description of her "sex"—a hole with pleasure sensors in it—might remove whatever allure there could be to the notion), and she seems as eager to participate in the test as Caleb is to perform it.

With its fine marriage of an attention-grabbing setting and premise, the movie's setup is hypnotic. Garland isn't simply concerned with theory here. There's a genuine sense of import in every piece of dialogue, particularly the exchanges between Caleb and Ava. Nathan sets up the parameters of success, and through the blank slate of Caleb, we're actively involved in trying to determine whether a certain look, pause, or intonation on Ava's part is the work of a conscious mind or the reflexive reaction of programming (Vikander's performance is as effective as it is because she only hints at either possibility). Is there significance to the fact that she can draw, or is the greater significance that her art has an almost mathematical appearance? Is her flirtatious way with Caleb just a quirk of coding, or is it a genuine, emotional reaction?

At first, the central question is the theoretical one put forth by Nathan, but just as the movie starts to peel back the layers of its thoughts on human consciousness, the questions becomes a far more mundane: Which of these three characters can we trust, and if we can't trust them, why can't we? It's akin to Garland opening a box to reveal some grand, inspiring design within it and then abruptly slamming the lid shut, insisting that we pay attention the construction of the container. Once we've seen the possibilities of the opening acts, the movie's regression to such comparatively trivial concerns is slightly jarring and quite disappointing.

Simply put, Garland is ultimately more interested in manufacturing mysteries within the plot and surrounding the characters than in exploring the greater mysteries that the plot and characters raise. Instead of pondering the bigger implications of the material, we're left to speculate what will happen in terms of the plot (Garland, seemingly aware of this, provides scenes that solely serve to eliminate guesses, such as a scene in which Caleb tests his nature). Ex Machina comes across as an elaborate game that only teases us with more thoughtful concerns.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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