Almost like a stage play with all the feelings of intimacy an audience may feel when seeing a live performance, Ex Machina is a rather remarkable film with a limited cast and a set that includes one building for the duration of the movie. And yet with 3 principal actors and only a handful of rooms writer and director Alex Garland spins a complex tale that explores morality issues in advanced AI, loneliness, desperation and self-loathing.
Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Black Mirror the Revenant and more) stars as Caleb, a lonely programmer in a vast search engine company who, upon winning a company wide lottery, is picked to meet the reclusive genius behind the technology empire that employs him. In awe of the man responsible for some of the worlds most advanced technology Caleb anticipates meeting a hero and perhaps a kindred spirit who might share his latent feelings of being abandoned by the world but gifted with genius level IQ.
Upon reaching the high-tech and secretive lair of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac: Drive, The Force Awakens, X-Men Apocalypse), Caleb soon discovers he is to be the centerpiece of a complex and exhaustive Turing Test together with the worlds most advanced artificial intelligence. Nathan wants to know if the AI, Ava, has become a thinking woman with the capacity for love, learning and deception. In fact, unlike a traditional Turing test, Nathan makes sure, through Avas design, that Caleb is fully aware he is speaking to a machine. The key, he thinks, is not to design an artificial intelligence that tricks you into thinking its human, but rather to design one so complex that you forget it isn’t.
It quickly becomes apparent that Nathan is a dark, troubled soul who has plumbed the depths of loneliness so exhaustively that he is forever broken. Once introduced to the AI Robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), Caleb begins to understand the AI is testing him as much as he is her and that something more sinister lurks behind the motivations for her creation.
There is a profound sense of loneliness everywhere in this movie, from the lighting to the set itself, and the subdued, almost depressed performances of the 3 main actors just adds a palpable gloom to the entire endeavor. How far will someone go to escape this loneliness? Will they be willing dupes? Subject themselves to degrading testing that strips away their humanity while adding it to a machines as though the human condition was a zero sum game?
Nothing about being human is off the table in this movie. Sexuality, friendship, greed, cruelty; every aspect of a person you can imagine is examined and flipped on its head. Captivating in its minimalist approach and riveting because of the remarkable performances served up by Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander Ex Machina is a must-see film and its easy to understand why it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay this year.
Alex Garland has a limited but diverse list of writing and directing credits including being behind the screenplay for the remarkable Dredd remake as well as 28 Days Later and has been announced as the writer for the upcoming Halo movie. Clearly, for him, this was a labor of love. The meticulous crafting of every single scene is obvious and directors don’t squeeze every last drop of talent from a cast that basically consists of 3 people, 2 of whom are separated by a glass wall, by accident.
And though I am not an expert on filmmaking, I just know what I love, when something is done remarkably well I notice it; so pay particular attention to the way the film is lit. In some shots it jumps right out at you that a brilliant directorial mind used lighting so masterfully to convey tones of despair, loneliness and dread. Garland is relatively young and seems to be hitting his stride so if you’re a film buff this is a guy to keep an eye on. If you’re a game fan and want to see the often talked about but never realized Halo movie become a reality take solace in knowing that the screenplay is in good hands.
The movie is available on Amazon Prime though it may be on other streaming services. If it isn’t available on the service you use now I imagine it will be as more and more Oscar contenders are added in the run up to the Academy Awards. Check it out, let me know what you think in the comments below.