The Anti-Blockbusters: Ex Machina

By | July 26, 2018

Rating: 4 ½ out 5 Stars

Bottom Line: In the tradition of the best science fiction movies, this near-flawless film uses its sci fi elements to address moral dilemmas we face in our current social setting.

This movie begins as programmer Caleb Smith, who works for the very Google-like company Blue Book, learns that he has won a one-week trip to the home of the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman. Once Caleb arrives there, he finds that Nathan has built a very human-like robot who he has named Ava. This robot has already passed a Turing test–which determines a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior–and Nathan wants Caleb to continue to test it to prove that it truly possesses artificial intelligence. Through the process, though, Caleb starts to develop feelings for Ava. And when he learns that Nathan plans on upgrading her, which will wipe out her current personality, he decides to try an save her current version from being destroyed.

This movie was written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Annihilation) and it was his directorial debut. He does an excellent job with both the script and helming the film and delivers what I believe should be counted as a new classic among science fiction movies. The pacing is slow but never plodding as the story unfolds carefully but does not proceed quite how you may expect. I’m trying to be as spoiler free in this review as possible because the film has plenty of twists and turns which are what truly make it into a great movie.

It’s no accident that Nathan’s company is analogous to Google because the film addresses issues that impact us due to the rise of tech-giants like that company and others. Artificial intelligence definitely is one of the moral quandaries tackled, but also the constant monitoring and surveillance as well as the extensive data collected on all of us that use their products. In the tradition of the best science fiction tales, this movie looks at how technology impacts us with all of the dilemmas that entails. And that sinks in pretty hard when Caleb comes to an important realization later in the film (again, no spoilers).

The cast is minimal with four actors taking up the vast majority of the screen time. Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, went on to play Poe Dameron in the Star Wars films, but the other three actors are not well known in the States. Still, they are more than up to the challenge of carrying this film and work quite well as an ensemble. Isaac probably has the most dominating presence, especially early on, but Alicia Vikander as Ava ends up stealing plenty of scenes, particularly toward the end.

The special effects are none short of excellent, though judiciously used. The majority of the visual effects are used on Ava’s machine body and these are flawless. But unlike the typical Hollywood blockbuster, this film does not give us an excess of CGI, nor does it live and die on its visuals alone. Ex Machina has a carefully crafted script that employs good sfx to take it to that next level, but the story and the actors are what truly set it apart. It is not a mega-budget film delivering non-stop action and CGI-overload. It is a much more somber piece that uses its science fiction premise to raise questions very important to our present social situation as well as the direction we are heading. That’s what good sci fi movies do.

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