In my reviews of movies I didn’t really care for, I tend to repeat the fact that I don’t like movies that stick to a tried and tested formula; I go to the movies to expect the unexpected, so nothing is more boring to me than something that feels familiar. Ex_Machina, the directorial debut of acclaimed author and screenwriter Alex Garland, is all about a topic that has been done in countless science fiction movies before and will doubtless be covered in even more movies in the years to come. Yet the movie feels like a true original, taking the most basic of sci-fi concepts (can a robot process human emotions?) and doing something completely unique with it.
As a screenwriter, Garland has previously breathed new life into tired genres such as the zombie movie, to the point that it’s controversial to even refer to it as a “zombie movie” in the company of horror movie purists. Here, he breathes new life into a sci-fi sub-genre that was running the risk of growing tired very quickly; with technology expanding rapidly by the second, an increasing number of directors are making movies that speculate on the increasing likelihood of artificial intelligence. The reason Ex_Machina works is that, with every successive year, these movies become increasingly plausible, with the concepts of the movies developing as technology develops, meaning it’s one of the rare genres where the ideas aren’t at the same risk of growing stale.
The movie isn’t set in an unspecified “not too distant future”, but the modern day, giving everything onscreen a certain plausibility, no matter how ridiculous everything sounds in isolation. Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer coder working for a search engine called “blue book”, one of the most successful websites in the world. Everybody in the company had been entered into a competition to go to the private mountain retreat owned by the company’s eccentric owner Nathan (a terrific Oscar Isaac), which Caleb unwittingly wins; on the helicopter flight there we find out that for over two hours, they have been flying over acres of land that Nathan owns. He is Bond-super villain rich, with an untrustworthy beard and a set of ulterior motives to boot.
Why does he want somebody as seemingly insignificant as Caleb to come and spend a week with him? Well, he has been selected at random to take part in an experiment – Nathan has created Ava, the world’s first A.I, and wants Caleb to take part in The Turing Test, to determine whether or not he thinks the A.I he has programmed could pass for being human. The week of events starts with a series of interviews determining her understanding of human emotions, then as the days go by, increasingly turns into a high-tech update of an Agatha Christie drawing room murder-mystery; Ava (played in a wonderfully understated performance from A Royal Affair star Alicia Vikander) warns Caleb that Nathan isn’t to be trusted, but why should we trust a robot that he programmed?
Last month, Stephen Hawking told reporters that the development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of mankind, making Ex_Machina feel all the more disturbing, even though its basic concepts are already so well-worn in science fiction movies and literature. Just think back at all the great movies that are doubtless giving Stephen Hawking sleepless nights due to the suggestion that the next step in evolution isn’t a genetic one, and that mankind will soon be obsolete by the increasing developmental nature of technology. It’s there in 2001, as Hal refuses to listen to orders to open the pod bay doors, it’s there in The Terminator franchise as Skynet marginalises the human race and most recently it was there in Her, the biggest comparison piece for Ex_Machina. Of course, that movie was a love story – albeit a story about the universal concept of love as opposed to romance, using a heartfelt yet utterly doomed relationship between a computer operating system called Samantha and her owner Theodore to explore a wide range of human emotions.
The closing moments of Her, as Samantha and the other O.S’s join together to form a greater stage of consciousness, leaving behind the human race, is echoed very heavily throughout Ex_Machina. The reason Her remains a better movie is because it was sincere and heartfelt when discussing human emotions, whereas Ex_Machina is somewhat cold and clinical in comparison. But it’s exploration of the same subject, whether it’s possible to feel emotions for a being that isn’t human, is similarly ground-breaking, but for different reasons. Like Her, it equally suggests that a relationship between a human being and a form of artificial intelligence isn’t something to be sneered at; their emotions may be programmed that way, but aren’t all of our emotions? At one moment, Nathan reminds Caleb that he never chose his sexuality, but he was programmed that way, just by “nature or nurture” rather than it being hard-coded into his DNA.
I apologise if I have made this movie sound like it consists entirely of extensive monologues on philosophy in the rapidly changing digital world. It’s far from it – Ex Machina is one of the scariest science-fiction movies I’ve seen due to both its plausibility and due to increasingly intense moments that sound ridiculous written down. The most intense moments are best left undiscovered, but there are a plethora of quieter scenes that feel horrifying despite nothing actually happening. For example, after being told Nathan isn’t to be trusted, we get a scene of him drunkenly dancing with his housemaid to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night”. In context, the sight of Oscar Isaac doing awkward dance moves in a generic horror movie setting (secluded house in the middle of nowhere) is nothing short of terrifying, effortlessly pulling off what is known as the “Stuck in the Middle With You” trick; making sure you can never hear the song in the same way again without getting that scene burnt onto your retinas. Even the movie’s funniest scenes are terrifying as they actually develop the idea that Nathan is a psychopath, even with little details like programming his A.I’s with sexual organs so that you can “fuck them, if you wanted to”.
Ex_Machina is that increasingly rare beast: the grown up science fiction movie that is as entertaining as it is plausible, with enough shocks to entertain the popcorn crowd and enough ideas to entertain the arthouses. After years of acclaimed novels and screenplays we knew that Alex Garland was a great science fiction writer, but his directorial debut is still surprising in how accomplished it feels. It is a confident beast that feels like the work of a fully formed director, rather than one who is only just spending his first time behind the camera.