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A gorgeous psychological thriller about A.I.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Hollywood is enthralled with big budget science fiction and fantasy films, particularly those starring superheroes, but despite their technological sophistication few of them do much more than please the eyes and leave you a little hard of hearing. Too much of a good thing is not good. These films have also brought along with them a renaissance of “hard” sci-fi, speculative fiction that makes you think more than it makes you drop your jaw in awe of the special effects. In the last few years, brainy big budget films like Inception, Interstellar, and District 9 have joined the exquisite, modestly budgeted Her and Under the Skin. Belonging to the latter category is Alex Garland’s fantastic Ex Machina, a gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and, deliberately or not, misogyny.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a 25-year-old coder at a massive, Google-like tech firm called Bluebook. He receives notification that he has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with Bluebook’s reclusive, eccentric genius founder at his estate in a nameless, northern mountain valley. In these sorts of tales, Bluebook’s founder would most likely be a socially awkward geek or a mustache-twirling force of malevolence. But founder Nathan, played by a bearded and buff Oscar Isaac, is a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude bro. Caleb, slight and pale and stereotypically nerdy, is perhaps more ill at ease by Nathan’s masculine aggression than his genius. He seems more comfortable with Ava, the android artificial intelligence that Nathan had brought Caleb to give the Turing Test, the procedure devised by Alan Turing (the subject of The Imitation Game) to determine whether an intelligence is human or computerized.

Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, has a face like that of a beautiful woman and a body shaped like one, though more clearly robotic. She is stunning, both for her beauty but also for her human qualities; surprise, humor, sadness, curiosity and love. Caleb is astonished and as he spends more time with her, is clearly infatuated. Nathan is watching the entire time through closed-circuit video that monitors everything in the sprawling house – except when the power goes out, which happens inexplicably often. It is during these outages that Ava is able to communicate with Caleb without Nathan knowing, when she tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says.

Nathan is not only arrogant and controlling, but he’s also a creepy misogynist. There’s a reason his A.I. prototypes all look like models, are mostly naked and are locked in glass cages. It’s not entirely clear if Garland is deliberately arguing that Nathan’s violent sexism and Caleb’s paternalistic version are either side-effects or precursors of their techno-fetishism, but it’s hard to ignore that this is underlying the film’s plot.

Alex Garland, celebrated writer of the novels The Beach and The Tesseract and the films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, and this is a pretty stunning start. While much of the film’s sleekly beautiful look can easily be attributed to production designer Mark Digby, who performed the same duty for Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, and the less well-known cinematographer Rob Hardy, Garland must be credited for pulling out exceptional performances from Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander.

Gleeson and Isaac, soon to be the stars of the new Star Wars film, are excellent, with Gleeson’s sympathetic and humane everyman contrasting with Isaac’s charismatic and cruel superman. Vikander is the best cinematic android since Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, and she’s a wonderful mystery. She’s fabricated, as is her intelligence. But does she have free will or is she just running through her programming?

Ex Machina

Written and directed by Alex Garland

Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander

Rated R

Opens April 25 at Landmark Hillcrest



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Posted by on Apr 16, 2015. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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