Cinema has been fascinated with the idea of AI and the consequences of their existence for a very long time. Classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, have put the debate over AI into the public sphere. So it was unsurprising but still interesting to see two films dealing with AI be released in recent weeks. Of course there is the now smash hit Avengers: Age of Ultron and its portrayal of the rogue AI, Ultron. However, the much less talked about of the two films, Ex Machina, might be the better representation of AI and the better film in general. Ex Machina is a much more subtle, character driven and small-scale take on what the creation of AI means for humanity. It certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel and its portrayal of AI is cliché in concept (even if its execution is certainly interesting), but this is a solid film.
Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer for the world’s most popular search engine, as he wins a contest to meet his boss (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mansion. It is here that his boss informs him that he has finally invented AI and wants Caleb to confirm the creation by performing the Turing test on the AI. Once the procedure begins, thought, it quickly becomes evident that not all is as it seems.
The film is directed and written by Alex Garland, who has spent his entire career writing sci-fi films that have had interesting concepts while never reaching the potential of those concepts (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, etc.). Here he strips down the story to its essence and turns it into a three character play. This allows for the character development to be much greater than his previous efforts and completely puts the success of the film on the back of his three leads instead of some concept that fizzles away by the end of the film. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and (especially) Alicia Vikander as Ava all do exceptional work in this film.
While the film certainly feels small as it’s functioning as a three character play there are still some interesting cinematic qualities within it. Garland finds a way to really ratchet up the tension in surprising ways, and the creation of the AIs he puts in this film are truly fascinating. I still have no idea how they created the robots, and trying to find out seems like trying to ruin one of the great cinematic surprises of the past few years.
Of course I would have preferred that the film finds a more original or at least commanding ending, but there is a lot to like in Ex Machina.