By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
Technology is scary. Cell phones, televisions and computers are necessary to everyday life, to the extent that our lives essentially revolve around these pieces of plastic and metal. So what will happen when Apple or Google creates something even smarter than a smartphone? Will it even be distinguishable from another human?
"Ex Machina", the directorial debut from "28 Days Later" screenwriter Alex Garland, is a complex, intelligent and often funny psychodrama that challenges the line between man and machine, as well as the growing power of technology in our world.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer at Bluebook, a Google-esque company. He wins a company-wide lottery, which earns him the unique opportunity to spend a week with the creator of the company, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) in his secluded estate. Upon arrival, Nathan reveals that Caleb has been brought to run a 'Turing test' on an A.I. he has created: Ava (Alicia Vikander).
In this experiment, Caleb interacts with Ava and determines whether she is truly sentient or merely pretending to be, based on whether Caleb can tell if he is still talking with a computer. This is made very interesting by Ava's visual design, as it is blatant that she is a machine. Besides having a human face and hands, she is gorgeously robotic, with wires and mechanisms moving like veins and arteries inside her translucent shell. The question then becomes, how can something so obviously synthetic be anything more than the sum of its parts?
As Ava talks and interacts with Caleb, she demonstrates compassion, humor, even sexuality, creating an uneasy feeling in our stomachs as we, like Caleb, begin to compulsively treat her character as a human. This deception is brought about by Vikander's amazingly controlled acting, which seems equal parts real and processed, forcing us to consider whether Ava's responses are automated or honestly emotional.
Of course, nothing is quite as it seems in "Ex Machina." Ava knows more than she lets on, revealing secrets to Caleb in ominous blackout periods when Nathan cannot supervise their sessions. Nathan seems outgoing and friendly at first impression, but we quickly learn that he is a reclusive alcoholic as well as a bit of a sarcastic misanthrope. Even Caleb, an obvious audience surrogate, has some issues that aren't initially revealed. Garland's withdrawn direction works perfectly for these ominous points, keeping us at arms length from important information and forcing us to question everything sent our way.
Above all else, it is a movie about the increasingly blurred line between men, machines and gods. Ava is clearly an adaptation of the biblical Eve and the high-tech facility buried in a cocoon of nature feels like a futuristic Garden of Eden. Nathan is a perfect personification of the narcissism of man, equating himself to a god while he is obviously more of a Dr. Frankenstein type.
Garland brilliantly uses Ava not only as a warning for the future, but also a chastisement of the present. In our current world - especially in colleges - we treat our phones as equals, allowing them to be substitutes for people and equating meaningless messaging for true human interaction. We've already begun to fail at distinguishing man from machine, as proven by a marketing technique where several fake 'Ava' profiles appeared on the popular dating app Tinder before premiere of the film, and managed to keep the attention of potential lovers.
The production design of "Ex Machina" is extremely effective, trading an overly complicated laboratory of robot movies past for a simple, yet deceiving complex that at times feels like a sci-fi version of Overlook Hotel from "The Shining." This hidden duality becomes extremely apparent as the facility occasionally blacks out, replacing the calm, slightly blue lighting with a dread-inducing red underlight.
"Ex Machina" is many things: an original, thrilling picture in its own right, a true beacon of light at the end of the garbage-ridden tunnel of movies from earlier this year, a great showcase for two upcoming "Star Wars" actors and an extremely impressive directorial debut from Alex Garland. Simply put, "Ex Machina" is the first great film of 2015.