Last year’s Her used AI to explore what love might look like in humanity’s strange technological future. Ex Machina attempts to do the same, but with less heart and a more ominous undertone, the film’s takeaway is something more like horror. It attempts a psychological experiment and fails, falling reliably in line as another dire warning about robots (something we’ve seen repeatedly as of late) without ever requiring us to feel.
Written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), Ex Machina presents a beautiful robot girl and all the creepy sci-fi elements we expect, including an alarming conspiracy theory behind search engines and smartphones, but fails to deliver an emotional punch.
It was filmed at the gorgeous Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway and starts nicely. Mild-mannered programmer Caleb (Dohnall Gleeson) wins a contest and is invited to a mountain retreat with the CEO of his company. The CEO is the ruggedly handsome tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He reveals his big secret: he has created an AI. We meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), presumably the world’s first robot. She has an unfinished robot body, but her face is beautiful. Caleb, as you can expect, falls in love.
Ex Machina progresses with menacing stillness. You’re never really sure if Caleb is part of a larger social experiment or who’s pulling the strings — creepy, intense Nathan, or perhaps Ava herself (itself?). We know something is up, but we can’t place our finger on it. Poor Caleb is mostly just an awkward, bumbling dupe with a heart of gold for most of it, but you gotta love the guy. Smart, kind techies always fall in love with computers, but this one might actually get a steamy romance with one — maybe.
The film wants to partially be a love story, I think, but Dohnall Gleeson’s Caleb is not interesting or likable enough to be a leading man, and Ava is just a recognizable actress with CGI skin. We’re never faced with uncanny-valley ick, which feels like a miss. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan leads the movie with a creepy, nuanced, understated performance, but he’s still just another young, possibly evil tech genius — a now-familiar villain in cinema.
If the film didn’t have such a knockout ending, it would fall irreparably flat. With its devastating finale, it becomes a thriller mind-fuck on the question of whether or not a very smart machine that observes human behavior can ever truly feel human emotions or simply mimic them — and whether or not one would be able to tell the difference. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but the robot seems arbitrary; we can ask the same question about actual humans. If someone genuinely feels love or mimics it, would you know? Would you care?
It might be an uncomfortable question, and one we may reasonably ask as AI increasingly attempts to know us better. Already AI programs can predict human choices online with alarming accuracy. Can one program compassion? But if we’re unable to instill authentic love in humans, how could we program it in robots? It’s sort of like the pointless debates around solipsism: the external world may be an illusion, a product of the senses — a lie — but since you can’t tell either way, why does it matter?
In the film, it matters a great deal to Caleb, but never really to us. Ex Machina is unnerving and shockingly violent, with a few twists you probably won’t see coming, but what it delivers on sleek, cold edginess, it lacks in any emotion. We never connect to the characters and their performances — including, most damningly, Alicia Vikander’s robot girl Ava — aren’t especially memorable. If you love a good, ominous robot flick, there are bitter films out there.
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