A good sci-fi movie poses a thought-provoking question that allows us to reflect on our humanity and place in the world; a great sci-fi movie allows that question to challenge our thinking and perceptions while entertaining us in the process. To say “Ex Machina” is a great sci-fi movie almost feels like a slight- it’s a movie that transcends its genre by being such a smart psychological thriller that you’re not likely to see a better film this year.
The story of “Ex Machina” centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer at the Web’s leading search engine Blue Book, who wins an office lottery to spend a week with Blue Book’s creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain estate: in layman’s terms, imagine working for Google if it were owned by Walt Disney and you won a week to spend with Disney behind-the-scenes at Disney World. Caleb is whisked away by helicopter to Nathan’s vast compound and a home that is more like a subterranean fortress hewn into the rock-something more akin to what a Bond villain would live in while he hatches his plan for world domination. And that’s not far from the truth in what Nathan is doing, as Caleb discovers.
Upon his arrival, Nathan asks Caleb to sign a non-disclosure agreement and participate in a Turing test, which Caleb knows to be human interaction with artificial intelligence to judge if the A.I.’s intelligence is equal to human. While excited by the prospect, Caleb is dubious by having to sign the non-disclosure agreement. Nathan understands and nonchalantly says that they’ll just drink beer and shoot pool all week if he doesn’t sign but assures Caleb that he will hate himself for not having signed when the A.I. is later revealed- Nathan is offering Caleb a first glimpse at the future. Caleb signs and is introduced to Nathan’s revolutionary A.I. creation, Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) has the appearance of a young woman with a human face and hands, but her hollowed robotic torso and wired, steel mesh-encased appendages show she is anything but human. While Ava is secured within a Plexiglass room, Caleb conducts a series of one-on-one meetings with her that are electronically monitored by Nathan. Standing outside of her enclosure, Caleb notices a spider-veined crack in the Plexiglass next to the opening through which the two can speak. As Caleb begins to interview Ava, he realizes this A.I creation is more than just superior programming on Nathan’s part- he believes there is something more to Ava, that maybe Ava has begun cognitive thinking as apparent through her questions and remarks to Caleb. The meetings between Caleb and Ava have all of the appearance of Clarice Starling interviewing Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” and, as with “Lambs,” the ominous tone suggested by the Plexiglass’ spider-veined crack begins to take shape as we witness Caleb and Ava slowly begin to bond. Mysterious intermittent power failures begin within Nathan’s compound, and it is during one such power failure while Caleb and Ava meet that the real psychological mind games begin: knowing Nathan’s surveillance has been severed by the power failure, Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan.
The beauty of a movie like “Ex Machina” is that as the manipulations unfold and Caleb becomes a fly caught in a spider’s web, we wonder who the spider really is. Is it Nathan, who designed the web, or is it Ava, whose knowledge and existence is the web itself? Our guessing allows us to reflect on questions that all good sci-fi movies make us do: in “Machina’s” case, innate knowledge versus experienced knowledge and how much of Ava’s knowledge comes from Nathan’s programming as opposed to something else.
It’s that something else that makes “Ex Machina” great. Credit Alex Garland, a formidable sci-fi screenwriter of movies like 2002’s “28 Days Later” who makes his directorial debut with this film, for creating a movie that is so well-written, acted, and directed that it deserves more than just being called one of the year’s best- I’d say it’s “something else.”