Wednesday, April 29, 2015

[Review] Ex Machina

Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine) makes directorial debut with Ex Machina, a stunningly well-crafted slice of future-shock drama with some A.I. eroticism.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, of last year's Frank) is a computer programmer with a fairly vanilla personality. Early on, he's selected as a contest winner and gets to take part in a very secretive study within a billionaire inventor's secluded and beyond-modern mansion. That mysterious billionaire inventor is Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Despite being a genius tech expert, Nathan speaks in specifically laid-back, non-scientific language. Oh yeah, and he stays up drinking alcohol all night. But we can tell that he's an immediately intimidating, complex mastermind. His current creation is Ava, a startlingly intelligent humanoid robot (played by supermodel-esque Alicia Vikander).

Nathan's aim for Caleb and Ava is to conduct an experiment involving the Turing test--if Caleb is unable to differentiate Ava from a real human being, then the test is a success and Ava is technically rendered as conscious. So, Caleb engages in a number of escalating sessions with Ava from the other side of a glass partition. At first, Ava behaves like a naive dictionary, but she becomes more responsive and assertive through multiple interactions. In many ways, the whole premise feels like a Willy Wonka factory trip, but without the sweet everlasting Gobstoppers and chocolate river.

The narrative is consistently intriguing. Each incremental reveal of information injects a major jolt of electricity into the story. It's never quite clear how everything is going to end up. Sure, there are a couple of things that you can most likely see coming, but it isn't necessarily a detriment to the experience. It's all so carefully calculated, and we as the audience are never quite positive who is being manipulated. The film sort of functions like a darker and more claustrophobic reboot of Spike Jonze's Her. And despite the film's heavy explorations of empathy, morality, human attachment, and the weirdness of hi-tech creationism, there is a sense of humor present. Most of the chuckleworthy moments sprout from general awkwardness, as well as Nathan's sporadic characterization.

The great performances take things up another notch. Domhnall Gleeson is sophisticated yet vulnerable, delivering a solid amount of believable "WTF?" takes. Oscar Isaac is definitely the standout here (The dance sequence!), and between his run of Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January, A Most Violent Year, and now Ex Machina, I think it's time to start mentioning his name in the industry's 'best current actors' discussion. Alicia Vikander is impressive as well, demonstrating a skillful turn that is both robot-like, and, well... human.

* 9/10 *

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