REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
What distinguishes artificial intelligence from human cognition? Can humans reliably tell apart entities with artificial intelligence from members of our species? These questions are at the nexus of “Ex Machina.”
Twenty-six-year-old Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, the imprisoned murderer in “Calvary”) has a thankless job as a computer coder at the world’s largest search engine company. Caleb wins an in house competition to spend a week at the sylvan estate of the company’s founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac from the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”).
It sounds like a great opportunity for Caleb. He’ll be meeting his fabulously wealthy and visionary boss. Perhaps, it will provide Caleb with a chance to impress Nathan and advance his career.
It promises to be a dream vacation for the lowly computer geek. Instead, it turns out to be a harrowing ordeal. Caleb is transported by helicopter and dropped off in an open field. From there, Caleb must embark on a hike, just to reach Nathan’s futuristic, high-tech home.
Once there, Caleb realizes that his boss is a psychologically-twisted megalomaniac. What’s worse, it becomes apparent that Caleb will be forced to become a participant in an experiment that Nathan is conducting.
Last year’s Oscar nominated film, “The Imitation Game,” profiled British computer pioneer, Alan Turing. It focused on Turing’s contributions, during World War II, to breaking the code for the Nazi’s Enigma Machine. Prime Minister Winston Churchill credited Turing and his fellow code-breakers for making a vital contribution to winning the war.
In 1950, while working at the University of Manchester, Turing published the paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” In it, Turing asserted that sophisticated computers were capable of human thought. In support of his premise, he introduced the so-called Turing Test as a metric to determine whether computers could be distinguished from their human counterparts.
Nathan has taken the Turing Test to a new level. In his remote retreat, he has designed a human-looking automaton and programmed her with advanced cognitive abilities. It is as if Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein has been transported to the 21st century.
Nathan’s creation is a stunningly attractive female cyborg, Ava (Alicia Vikander from “Seventh Son’). Her alluring face and flesh covered limbs make her appear human. However, Ava’s transparent torso shell reveals that she has a metallic armature with computer components within her. She is confined to a hermetically-sealed area with clear walls as a virtual prisoner.
In a series of seven daily encounters over the course of a week, Caleb will be used as a guinea pig. Separated from Ava by a glass wall, he is challenged to determine whether she is a bona fide human or an ersatz facsimile. His interactions with Ava will be closely monitored by a ubiquitous surveillance system. Will Caleb be attracted to the beautiful gynoid? Will he form an emotional attachment to a non-human?
Along the way, Nathan proves to be somewhat of a cinema savant, who quotes memorable lines from vintage films. He refers to having enough cable wire in his home to “lasso the moon.” That’s an evocative line out of Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” At one juncture, he asks, “Who you gonna call?” That’s the tagline straight out for “Ghostbusters” and part of the catchy refrain from the titular song, sung by Ray Parker, Jr.
The acting here is top-notch. Particularly noteworthy is the performance by Vikander. The Swedish ballerina turned actress creates a disconcertingly eerie persona. It combines distinctively human and non-human components.
Alex Garland, the writer/director, of “Ex Machina,” boasts a résumé, which is full of cerebrotonic works. It includes the novels, “The Tesseract,” “The Coma,” and “The Beach.” The latter was made into a film, directed by Danny Boyle. Garland subsequently wrote the original screenplays for Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” In addition, Garland penned the adaptations of the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go,” and one from a comic book source, which inspired the film, “Dredd.” “Ex Machina” marks Garland’s debut as a director. He acquits himself with a film that is compellingly crafted.
Will computers one day be able to outwit their human programmers and rise up against them? This nightmarish sci-fi premise informs, “Ex Machina.”
Full of provocative ideas, at times, the film becomes unduly abstruse. “Ex Machina” emerges as a moody meditation on artificial intelligence.
*** R (for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence) 104 minutes. A24 Pictures
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.