No God in the Title: A Review of Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

Ex MachinaEx Machina has no business being as good as it is. It’s slick, it’s lean, it’s science fiction, it’s made out of long passages of people talking, it’s about big ideas, and most importantly, it’s about the creation of artificial intelligence. Usually, when a movie looks and sounds like this, it is stupid. The two most recent examples of movies dealing with this premise are Transcendence and Chappie, both terrible movies. But Ex Machina knows what it is doing. It succeeds where other movies fail, because it doesn’t romanticize creation. This is not a story about Frankenstein being tormented by his monster. This is a story about creation itself. It really isn’t fair that a movie can pack enormous ideas in such an economic plot, and still be one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

One of the beauties of Ex Machina is that you can take it exclusively at face value, and it will still be one of the best movies of the year. As a surface pleasure, the movie is an exciting thriller. A three-hander between three outstanding actors. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a Mark Zuckerberg-type figure who summons one of his employees to a remote estate where he is to test his latest invention. The employee, Caleb, is played by Domhnall Gleeson, the invention is Ava, an intelligent robot played by the magnificent Alicia Vikander. Caleb’s job is to interact to Ava and determine whether A.I. is good enough to fool someone into believing they’re interacting with a human being, and not with a very smart computer. This is what people call a Turing Test.

As you would expect from a movie as dimly lit as this one, something is not quite what it seems. Caleb quickly notices that something’s off, and thus, begins a fascinating game of two men -and a machine- trying to out-smart each other. Perhaps the deciding factor in Ex Machina being as good as movie as it is, is the fact that the conflict builds up to a pretty fantastic conclusion. The “twist”, if you can call it that, may not be the most surprising thing, but it sure as hell isn’t dumb. Instead of trying to pull the rug from under us, Ex Machina understands that having a thematically-relevant ending is much more valuable than shocking your audience.

The man behind the machine is Alex Garland, making his directorial debut after a healthy career as a screenwriter. His most famous scripts –28 Days Later and Sunshine– were directed by Danny Boyle, and judging from Boyle’s subsequent career, it seems like Garland was the key partner in that collaboration. As a director, Garland walks the tightrope of hostile beauty. The fortress estate where the movie takes place is, in reality, an immaculate Norwegian Hotel where blocks of glass and wood blend into the green landscape. Everything is beautiful, but angular in shape and cold in its colors. It’s pristine, but ain’t cozy.

The same can be said about Ava. She is beautiful -how can she she not, when she has the face and body of Alicia Vikander?- but when we meet her, we can see the hardware and the wires in her perfectly shaped body. She is the most beautiful woman Caleb has ever seen, except she’s no woman at all. Everything is slightly wrong in a somewhat Kafkaesque way, especially Nathan who is unbearably casual and relaxed for a computer genius. Oscar Isaac once again proves he is one of the best actors of his generation, turning up the comedy and using bro-ish charm as a delightful mechanism to not letting us peek into Nathan’s mind.

As a screenwriter, Garland decides to depict the future of artificial intelligence by means of looking at the past, or more specifically, the most ancient myths of creation. Ex Machina is a beautiful allegory about men turning into Gods, that quite fascinatingly, positions that men already think they’re Gods. It is specific in a way that becomes universal, and it is, at its core, a revolutionary movie. It’s not exactly an ambitious movie, but it is superbly well made, and designed to live outside the movie theater if you let it.

To talk in more detail about these aspects would mean going into spoilers, which might be useless in a blog post. The best way to experience Ex Machina is to have a conversation with people who have also seen it. To ask each other what you think it’s about, and to (hopefully) come up with fundamentally similar, but also very different conclusions. Movies that inspire conversation should be cherished, especially when they are as entertaining as this one.

Grade: 9 out of 10

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