Ex Machina – 2015

Written and Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno

Ex Machina scratched an itch I’ve had since seeing that Gleeson and Isaac were added to the ever-expanding list of new actors entering the Star Wars universe. There has been a pretty good track record of actors added to the burgeoning series. Gleeson was spectacular co-starring with Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy in the classic, About Time. Isaac was most impressive in 2014’s A Most Violent Year. Adding talent like theirs to any film’s roster is a sign of good things to come, right? That’s what I thought heading into Episode I with, McGregor, Portman, Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson. Let’s hope lightening doesn’t strike twice.

For now, let’s talk about artificial intelligence, the Turing test and mouse traps, as presented by the author of 28 Days Later. Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer for Bluebook, which is essentially Google. As the opening credits fade, we discover that Caleb has won the lottery he never bought a ticket for: a week-long visit with the company’s CEO, founder and genius, Nathan (Isaac). Then, after a very long helicopter ride (2 hours over his estate) the young employee is dropped off in a secluded woody area with a river. He is instructed to walk along the bank until he arrives at the house, literally built within the environment.

Once there, he meets Nathan, in the most awkward and ill at ease way possible. He is instructed to get past the formalities, and go right into “beer me” mode. Uh, okay. Now let’s talk about the artificial chick that you are supposed to run a modified test on, to, you know, verify that she can pass for a human. Um, okay.

There is no effort to hide the fact that Ava (Vikander) is a machine. We’re past that, says Nathan, for reasons that he really doesn’t prove. He also does not want to go into how he created Ava. Is this because Gleeson could not comprehend this? No, Nathan says. He just wants to see if she can present successfully as a being that is self-aware.

Conversations between Caleb and Ava than they do with his creator. It’s a natural ebb and flow for the test subjects. Nathan is often in varying states of drunkenness and more often confrontational than informative. Then there are the power outages, seemingly random and unable to be resolved by the person who designed the house. As for the people who put the design together? Nathan says he had them killed. Then he barely cracks a smile…sort of.

It is during one of these outages that Ava confides in Caleb that she does not trust Nathan. Caleb shouldn’t either, she says. Of course not. Why should he, when everything so far has pointed to him being a bad guy. One of the things I worried about while watching the trailer for this film is that this would be the case. There were other things that become obvious in watching the film. Thankfully, not all of these paths are followed in the telling of the story.

Enough of them happen, though, that it’s hard to become fully invested in its telling. The characters seem more like placeholders for points to be made in the plot, rather than real self-aware beings. Gleeson and Vikander offer a good ebb and flow. Isaac’s Nathan is so obviously tethered to the script, it’s makes one want to reach through the screen and give him a slap and scream:

“Hey pal, you are about to get the business end of your creation.”

One would figure that any scientist brilliant enough to create artificial life pretty much on his own would have the presence of mind to stay sober when it’s going through its final test.

The fault lies with the story, as well the execution. Talk as much or as little as you want about how something happened. If you don’t have an interesting path to get to the climax, most people will stray by the time they get there. It’s a competent film, and the effects are beautiful. Seeing the lithe form, as well the intricate insides of Ava creates many questions that the script itself does not bother to follow. A little more querying and a little less Westworld would do this story great instead of just good.

(*** out of *****)

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