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Ex Machina (2015), playing on your sympathies as powerfully as your suspicions, this is a sci-fi artificial intelligence thriller told in a manner you have not seen before.

April 29, 2015


MY CALL:  An artificial intelligence thriller told in a manner you have not seen before. It will play on your sympathies as powerfully as your suspicions.  MOVIES LIKE Ex Machina: The Machine (2013), Transcendence (2014) and Chappie (2015) all explore self-awareness, our judgment of it and its evolution in different ways. I recommend all three.


Almost entirely taking place in one location, Ex Machina keeps us mentally on our toes while never really pulling us out of our comfort zone.  This sense of “comfort” works all too well as we, along with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson; About Time, Dredd, Star Wars Episode VII), get carried away sympathizing for artificial intelligence creation Ava (Alicia Vikander; Seventh Son).


Caleb, a talented coder working for a huge search engine company called BlueBook (much like Google), is charged with performing a week-long Turing test on Ava to establish that her self-awareness is more than just a stunningly accurate simulation of sentience. But Ava surprises Caleb with her elegant mind…and heart.


Ava’s creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac; A Most Violent Year, Drive, Robin Hood) is friendly yet arrogant and well-God-complexed–perhaps not surprising being a young billionaire genius engineer who may have created the first ever truly self-aware artificial intelligence.  He boasts friendship over beers and then pushes and manipulates to uncover the truths about Ava that he feels Caleb withholds.


As Caleb conducts his Turing inquiry, Ava and Nathan engage in a tug-of-war to earn Caleb’s trust.  We are given convincing evidence to distrust either of them, but Ava naturally garners more sympathy being that she is kept against her will by her Frankensteinian creator.  Ava is not surprisingly brilliant yet carries a mildly naïve air about her and the likewise naïve Caleb is almost immediately taken by her.


So who do we trust?  The controlling Creator or the created machine?  Or do we trust the innocent tester Caleb, whose apparent lack of emotional maturity may blur his judgment? We find that all three of them have their own plan…and we are left to question whose plans match, overlap, or conflict with each other’s.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (writer of Dredd, Sunshine, 28 Days Later), this film plays on our sympathy and trust. Driving the story is both Caleb and Ava’s innocence, which is starkly contrasted by their craftiness and a shared resistance to Nathan.


As the astute but lonely Caleb, Gleeson is stellar as usual. Ava was carefully and precisely acted by Vikander–her facial expressions and eyes telling us far more than her brilliantly scripted dialogue ever could. But for me Oscar Isaac was the one who truly stole the show as Nathan. Nathan has all the quirks we might expect from a locked in savant…fixation, a bipolar grip on hospitality and temperament, addiction, patience in some regards and impatient in others. Perfectly duplicitous, yet understandably so, Nathan is handled like a villain playing a relatively fair game. At times his behavior skirts that of a sociopath–watch out for the almost surreal “dance scene.” He self-medicates his solitude with alcohol, which serves to alienate the obsessed programming paragon from Caleb, befriend Caleb, and even empower Caleb.

As we learn more about the motives driving each of our three players, we see our expectations crumble before our eyes into such a simple, sensible conclusion that we somehow never saw coming. My only successful prediction: that something bad was going to happen to someone.

We adjourn with an ending that is powerful. Its impact will haunt you.



7 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    May 4, 2015 2:29 pm

    Given a choice I chose not to watch the latest Avengers movie/marketing franchise opting instead for what turned out to be much more intelligently written, directed and thoughtful presentation. Of course that meant that only two other couples were present while the adjoining lovefest of the low brow Avengers was packed.

    I was taken back by the background scenery and the surprisingly small cast. Character development rich and action poor as most of the violence is contained in the last 25 minutes.

    i feel this movie ups the standards for future AI-based films. The ending was very appropriate and necessary for any foreign intellect’s need for survival in a world dominated by biologics. I intend to add this to my collection when it is available. Thanks MFF to keeping me out of the mainstream.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      May 4, 2015 2:46 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. This film quietly blew me away in such a subdued manner that my hair never shifted with the calm yet thrilling breeze in which story and characters trump explosions and big biceps.

      Stay tuned as we discuss this film in our podcast (episode to be released within 2 weeks).


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