Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Ex Machina"

 3.5 / 5 

Beneath the glassy, controlled surface of Ex Machina a question about technology churns and roils the waters: Do we even know what we're doing?

Though that big philosophical question lingers, to Ex Machina's credit that's not what's mostly on its mind.  Above all, it aims to be a crafty, unpredictable cat-and-mouse game, and it admirably succeeds, occasionally despite the calm, assured style that can sometimes get in its way.

Lanky, awkward Domhnall Gleeson anchors the movie as Caleb,  lanky, awkward young computer programmer who wins a contest to meet the head of his company, the barely older Nathan, played by a bearded Oscar Isaac.  (Ex Machina will likely be remembered by Star Wars fans as the movie that paired these two before they went into that galaxy far, far away.)

Meeting Nathan isn't really the big prize, though, because the reclusive, insanely wealthy head of the company has a task for the winner.  He's invented a robot that he thinks can pass as a human and wants Caleb to administer the "Turing test," a fabled examination of technology that aims to see if artificial intelligence can be mistaken for the real thing.

The robot is named Ava, and she's played with gentle complexity by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.  What she does with the role is astonishing: She makes us really believe we're watching an advanced robot, some sort of digital creature.  If her performance feels less flashy than Gleeson's and Isaac's, it's because Vikander is so convincing and captivating; the way she breathes real life into Ava is one of Ex Machina's greatest achievements.

The audience catches on to the central drama of Ex Machina faster than Caleb does: Something is not quite right about Nathan and his impossibly large and imposing technological compound.  (The movie's luxurious vistas seem to be set somewhere in the high-tech realm of the Pacific Northwest but were shot in southern Norway.)

Nathan's got a screw loose, but wouldn't anyone with a similarly vast fortune?  He insists just a little too hard that he and Caleb should be best buds, allows himself to get just a bit too drunk every night, and when the power goes off unexpectedly during Caleb's first night at the compound, Nathan's just a little too comfortable with such a giant bug in the system.

Caleb knows he's in for some trouble, but he's not quite sure what it is.  Part of the fun of Ex Machina is working it all out for yourself.  Though it has a highly sleek and polished look, make no mistake: Ex Machina is something of a funhouse.  It's not strictly a murder-mystery, but it might as well be; if there aren't bodies at the beginning of it there may well be by the end.  Imagine yourself to know where the movie is headed when it starts and you'll be sorely mistaken once the end credits roll.  It may look supremely even-keeled, maybe even a little cerebral, but you can be absolutely certain that beneath its frosty exterior Ex Machina is giddily impressed with itself.  And well it should be.  The storytelling feats it accomplishes are impressive ones, and the final moments are spot-on, leaving you with a well-earned, sinister smile on your face.

Even though I'm plagued by one central loophole I still can't quite rectify (one so critical to the plot that I can't reveal it here -- email me separately if you want to have a discussion about it), I enjoyed Ex Machina while I watched it ... and like it even more as I think about its stealthy twists and clever deceptions.

It never really delves into those deeper philosophical questions about technology, and never really needs to -- it's got its hands full just keeping all of its surprises coming, and Ex Machina is far too entertaining to need to teach us any sort of a lesson.

Viewed April 19, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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