Most sci-fi about Artificial Intelligence (AI) is less about AI and more about the nature of Man or what makes something human. Some do it right: Kubrick’s A.I. provided a unique examination of the meaning of love from the perspective of an emphatically innocent character, and Blade Runner questioned the definition and our perception of what is life. Others do it wrong: Automata thought it had something important to say without knowing how to say it, and I, Robot was great action that dragged along an AI theme like a hunter bringing home a freshly clubbed baby seal. The whole concept can get tiresome after seeing it in about a dozen configurations. Does Ex Machina do something different to break the monotony or falter into banal waste?
Using suspense peppered in dry humor courtesy of Oscar Isaac’s fantastic performance, Machina transcends my preconceived notions. What could have been a typical “Killer AI” story in the wrong hands becomes an interesting commentary on not just the nature of Man, but also the nature of nature. The film takes one big idea and breaks it down to a microscopic scale, peeling away the broader implications of AI and taking a contemplative look at what it means for individual human beings.
After winning a corporate lottery, Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is invited to the private estate of his boss Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. Caleb finds out he has become the participant in an experiment with Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, a gynoid (cyberpunk term for female android) and first robot to possess AI. Over the course of a week, Caleb interacts with Ava to determine if her emotions and personality are equal to that of humanity, under the watchful eyes of Nathan.
Machina explores the concept of what makes one human in regards to the mind more than the physical. The experiment itself is the Turing Test, a process by which a human questions a computer to determine if it has the capacity to be more than just. Machina uses the test to examine the elements of humanity. Caleb’s interactions with Eva not only reflect general intellect, but sexuality, deception, and emotion in a way not seen too often in sci-fi. The film is plain as day in its portrayal; unafraid to challenge the audience to consider whom they are on the deepest level possible.
Aside from the complex theme, suspense is what makes the film work, helped more so by the setting of a cramped, isolated building in the middle of nowhere. You never know what is going on and the more you find out, the less you understand what is actually happening. One could glean a significant amount information and make their own conclusions, but each revelation comes with a heap of contradiction that makes you question everything. The biggest contradiction comes at the end that will change what you thought about the characters and their intentions.
Gleeson played his standard, dweeby everyman and Vikander was a great robot with charming, innocent naiveté. Both were good and neither showed any reason to complain, but the best performance by far comes from Isaac. He was so good, I cannot fully articulate how gloriously, hilariously, bat-shit insane he was in the role of Nathan. Even in seemingly serious moments, Isaac will come in and make you laugh at the depravity and abandonment of his acting. It is not as though he does not care about the role, but he cares so much, he goes the extra hundred miles to be as entertaining as possible, and it works. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Go see Ex Machina. It is brilliant, entertaining, and suspenseful. If you like sci-fi, this is a fresh take on an old story. And if you do not like sci-fi, but you like horror or thrillers, there is more than enough to appreciate how the film carries itself. Regardless, see it for Oscar Isaac.