“Ex Machina” Movie Review

    Writer/director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” is a sort of cross between “Frankenstein” and “Blade Runner” with some of the tendencies of Steve Jobs seemingly mixed in for good measure.  Garland is making his directorial debut here following a successful screenwriting career that includes “28 Days Later” (2002), “Sunshine” (2007), and the reimagining of “Dredd” (2012).  “Ex Machina” is the kind of film which concentrates on two main characters who share the majority of the scenes and dialogue within the confines of a claustrophobic bland setting.  In other words, the film doesn’t venture too deep into the world of high end special effects, instead preferring to remain an indie film at its core.  In order to not allow the proceedings to become tedious over the length of a feature film, Garland’s screenplay would have to be loaded with interesting dialogue where the conversations themselves create the emotion necessary to hold the audience’s attention.  For the most part, Garland succeeds in doing so, creating a scenario which has hints of familiarity, but ultimately goes in a direction that would be tough to predict.

     We’ll see both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” later this year, and watching them in “Ex Machina” gives us a solid benchmark as to why J.J. Abrams decided to cast both of them as new characters in his film.  Gleeson plays Caleb, a young and upcoming programmer for an internet search engine company called Blue Book, which boasts to be responsible for 95% of the world’s internet searches.  With the film taking place in the not too distant future, the opening scenes of “Ex Machina” want to project a cross between a “Google” and “Apple” type tech company that has taken the very steps to world domination that both of those companies seem headed for today.  Caleb is sitting at his work station when he is notified that he has won a week long trip to the secluded mountain residence of the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  I’m not sure if he really knows what exactly he has won, other than the opportunity to meet his boss in person, but it doesn’t take long after his arrival to realize why he has been brought there.

     The subject matter of last year’s Oscar nominated film “The Imitation Game” comes into play almost immediately when Nathan asks Caleb if he is familiar with the Turing Test, a scientific exercise developed by mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing in the early 1950s in which an interrogator goes about determining which of two subjects is a computer and which is human.  The computer’s intension in the test is to give answers which are indistinguishable from that of the human subject.  These tests were the beginnings of the development of what we now know as artificial intelligence and it becomes clear Nathan has been busy in his mountain hideaway doing just that, but now seeks to take his work to whole other level.  Caleb, as finds out, was brought here to be the human test subject that will interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot built by Nathan who is capable of achieving the emotional characteristics of a human.  She seems to be the next logical step from the Samantha character in the movie “Her”.

     Garland has written Nathan in a way that seems to channel many of the traits we saw in the late Steve Jobs.  His secluded research facility, Caleb asks the helicopter pilot how long until we get there, to which the pilot replies “We’ve been flying over his estate for the last two hours”, seems to be exactly the kind of place Jobs would’ve been working on the latest secret Apple product with its ultra modern technological construction and look.  Every room seems like a MacBook Pro would be right at home with the sleek futuristic furniture and the plain yet shiny concrete walls and plexiglass windows looking out to majestic waterfalls and the endless wilderness.  Nathan seems to be rough around the edges when it comes to human interaction, as it becomes clear he stands on a proverbial pedestal making judgements on every non verbal cue he observes in Caleb’s initial behavior.  He tries to lighten the mood with conversations that try to keep Caleb at ease, but there always seems to be an undercurrent of tension and a certain level of uncomfortableness.  He wants him to feel at home, but at the same time he chooses to interact with him while he’s doing Alpha Male activities like lifting weights and hitting the heavy bag.  Not exactly the kind of thing that will leave a skinny computer geek at ease.

     Garland divides the story into several chapters that are represented as the individual sessions Caleb has with Ava which are monitored on camera by Nathan.  There’s no doubt from the beginning that a certain attraction exists between the two, as Ava’s intelligence is housed in the form of a beautiful robotic female.  A lot of these exchanges will remind you of the testing done by Deckard in “Blade Runner” on Rachael whose AI was so advanced that she didn’t know that she was a Replicant.  You may also be further inclined to make the “Blade Runner” comparison when the sessions are over and Caleb returns to Nathan to analyze what had just occurred in similar fashion to Deckard’s conversations with Dr. Tyrell, Rachael’s creator.  There’s no doubt Garland’s script is heavily influenced by Scott’s classic, as well as “Frankenstein” with Nathan easily fitting into the role as a modern day version of Dr. Henry Frankenstein.  Of course, there were plenty of mistakes made in previous versions and this where Garland’s film tends to delve into Freudian waters when certain discoveries are made.  Think of the scene in “Alien Resurrection” when Ripley discovers the room filled with failed experimental versions of herself.

     “Ex Machina” clearly sets out to ask a number of questions that some may find provocative in nature and yet they seem to be commonplace within our society today.  Early in the film, Nathan explains to Caleb that internet companies of the past got it all wrong when they used their search data within the social media realm to determine what it is we are all thinking.  He tells Caleb what he has done is use the same data to determine why we are thinking various things.  In other words what is the impulse that causes the thought.  It truly raises some interesting questions when we talk about the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence that has those same unpredictable impulses that we all possess as humans.  If we ever arrive at the day where a real life Ava is able to function within our society undetected than what will that mean for humanity?  “Ex Machina” may just be a smart enough film to provide the answer.  GRADE: B+