Man’s obsession with the advancement of computers and the possibility or dread of machines becoming sentient, is something that has fascinated and been fodder for storytellers, writers and filmmakers even before Charles Babbage tipped the first metaphoric domino in the story of computing.
In film, the robot, cyborg or living computer has been evident as early as Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, through the 1951 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, to modern classics such as James Cameron’s brilliant The Terminator.
With all that has gone before, 2015 brings the critically acclaimed Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it tells the story of a brilliant scientist who has created a female, artificially intelligent humanoid. To test her responses and gauge her level of humanity, he enlists the assistance of one of his employees to observe and interact with her for a week at his remote home compound. The experiment and interactions have fateful consequences.
A film unusual in that the lead character, Ava the humanoid, played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, ably assisted by fabulous CGI, is not an obvious lead. Such is the strength of the other characters; Nathan, a warped genius, embodied by a superb Oscar Issac and Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who shows wonderful empathy as the real connection for the audience. This is a film that is more cerebral than visual. In fact it may have worked better as a book.
As a film, it brought to mind Caradog W James’ 2013 film, The Machine. James’ film covers a lot of the same ground that Ex Machina does, though not as well, lacking the subtlety and tension of Garland’s film. What The Machine has, that Ex Machina does not, is action. Ex Machina looks wonderful. Every shot beautifully framed, the remote, stark bunker-like home of Nathan, looking vast and modernist. But considering most of the film is about conversations – static ones – with us watching the interactions between Ava and Caleb as Nathan also does, it was difficult to appreciate it as a big screen film.
The performances are all top drawer, the actors working fantastically off of one another. The story also is clever and a little uncomfortable, asking questions of what it is to be human and what is the price of freedom. The tension created, mostly by Oscar Issac’s warped Nathan, works well, but is constant rather than building.
Ex Machina is a good film. A smart and well executed film, Garland can be happy with his directorial debut. I am not so sure it is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.