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Ex Machina: Not a Girl, Not yet an A.I.

Director: Alex Garland

Screenplay: Alex Garland

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaacs , Alicia Vikander

Science fiction, Thriller

108 min

American film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have said that watershed films are the ones that center around ideas: movies that people will talk about over a cup of coffee, movies that make you think and which have real implications in our lives. Alex Garland’s confident scifi-thriller Ex Machina is nothing if not a story of ideas, brought forth by a smart narrative brimming with scientific fervor and enigmatic charm. And most importantly, it prods questions about the (non)human condition which you will be chewing over long after you’ve stepped out of the movie theater.

Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the holy grail of cinema scifi), Ex Machina understands pacing and the importance of not revealing your best cards too early in the game. After a slick intro, the story finds itself in a remote bunker somewhere in the Norwegian woods. Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaacs), genius founder of the world’s most popular search engine “Bluebook”, has isolated himself to build the world’s first authentic artificial intelligence. The protagonist Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) has won the exclusive right to witness this work, and he soon discovers that Nathan has wrought an A.I. into the sensual form of a female android…

Gleeson and Isaacs both deliver stellar performances, yet it is the alluring fembot Ava, played by rising starlet Alicia Vikander, who ultimately steals the show. While certain features of Ava seem utterly human-like, other parts reveal the literal transparency of her artifice. Her character thus invites the quintessential question explored in scifi stories such as Blade Runner or Her: can a machine develop genuine feelings for a person? The Turing test serves as a recurring plot element, and Ava’s primary goal is to convince Caleb that she can pass for a real human. A deliberation of this scenario exemplifies the brooding darkness that resonates throughout the story: what will happen to Ava if she fails the test?

The engrossing story and performances are supported by a wondrous audiovisual sense. The understated special effects (made by the visual design team behind Inception and Interstellar) are striking, and the pulsating score instills the subtle sensation of science gone awry. The comprehensive genius of Ex Machina owes largely to the auteurist vision of Alex Garland, whose directorial debut crystallizes the many strengths of his previous works (e.g. 28 Days Later, Sunshine) in terms of storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship. Garland himself has said that Ex Machina is possibly his only work that he’s really happy with, and it certainly shows in the end product.

Some critics have criticized the apparent sexism of the film, but I would argue that such interpretations are lazy surface impressions of Ex Machina‘s deeper message, which reveals a troubling world in which men’s hypersexual ideals of women are inevitably entangled with the growing presence of high tech gadgetry. In the age of Tinder, porno googling and humanoid robotics, we have perhaps bridged the gap between sex and technology more than we’d like to admit to ourselves. Does Ava forebode the post-human dawn of (wo)mankind? While we wait to find out, sit back and enjoy this groovy dancing scene from the film:

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