Ex Machina isn’t so much a movie as it is a conversation piece. Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie – far from it – but that its inherent value is in its talking points, not its talky plot. You will almost finish watching Alex Garland’s low-budget sci-fi thriller and have a serious debate with your friends and/or lovers about the issues that Ex Machina raises, and that conversation is simply way more significant than the actual film that inspires it.
Domhnall Gleeson (Dredd 3D) plays Caleb, a computer engineer who just won a prestigious prize to spend the weekend with a reclusive genius named Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. Nathan is an off-putting blowhard, but an undeniable visionary. He’s just invented what he suspects is the world’s first true artificial intelligence, and he needs an outside observer – namely, Caleb – to administer The Turing Test.
For those who don’t know, or who missed The Imitation Game in theaters last year, The Turing Test involves a human being interacting with a computer: if the human can tell that they’re talking to a computer, then that computer failed The Turing Test. Making things more complicated in Ex Machina is that this computer is in the form of a beautiful robotic woman called Ava, played by Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son), and she seems to be self-aware enough to know she’s being held prisoner. Her captor, Nathan, considers her an object to be toyed with, not a person with feelings of her own.
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So if Caleb thinks that Ava passes The Turing Test, does he not have a moral responsibility to save her? Or, artificially intelligent or not, is she still just a piece of property? Why the hell would Nathan build an artificial intelligence that can experience and desire human sexuality anyway, if not to screw with Caleb’s mind? And is not the audience a part of The Turing Test as well, projecting our own ideas about Ava and her plight onto the film, which actually never gives us a clear glimpse into what she’s really thinking? All we have are her interrogations, and in every single one of those, she may or may not have a different agenda.
Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are excellent at playing geniuses, or at least at playing ambitious computer science majors who got really high and started talking about “big ideas.” The bulk of Ex Machina consists of serious, and seriously well-acted conversations about the ethical ramifications of scientific progress, and of producing products that can think or feel as deeply as their owners. It’s a TED Talk in the form of a movie, with a few creepy twists and suspenseful deceptions that keep the plot moving forward. And Alicia Vikander is seductively complicated as the robot who comes between them.
But this is a talk we should be having, either as a practical investigation of our evolving technological landscape or simply as an intellectual exercise. Ex Machina doesn’t linger in the memory as a particularly notable thriller – it’s a little too focused on the intellect to completely engage the emotions, even though the ending is a corker – but the movie does make a significant impact as the subject of heated debate. Go see it, and plan to get coffee with your friends afterwards. You’ll probably close down the Starbucks before you come to any meaningful conclusions about life, the universe and everything, but at least you’ll be talking about something more interesting than whatever the hell the Kardashians are doing nowadays.