A Most Violent Year, AI, Alicia Vikander, Artificial Intelligence, Black Mirror, Cinema, Computing, Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Film, Intelligence, Movie Review, Oscar Isaac, Robots, Science Fiction, Turing Test
Have you ever wondered whether robots may one day rule over humanity? Have you ever questioned whether or not we as human beings are the most sophisticated form of intelligent life? If you have then this film could capture your imagination and give you some valuable food for thought. However, if like me, you have taken basic courses in consciousness and epistemology, you might find that the content in this movie isn’t all that illuminating. There’s nothing special to be found in the conversations between Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac) because nothing that’s said is original or ground-breaking, despite the fact that the pair are supposedly very intelligent individuals. They come across as imitators rather than visionaries, constantly quoting other people’s work and telling the audience about more interesting people than themselves. This feels like a movie that’s been directed by a writer, with a focus on sounding clever rather than being entertaining, it’s very pretentious and it suffers as a result.
This might seem like a very critical way to open a review, and it is, but that’s not to say that I disliked “Ex Machina” as a whole. It’s well shot, well acted, and takes on an interesting subject matter, but I have a problem with the fact that the filmmakers seem to think that they are a tad more clever than they actually are, and this is painfully demonstrated by the fact that the leading characters often feel like mouthpieces, rather than real people.
The movie is about Caleb, a young coder who wins what seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime; by winning a competition he is presented with the chance to visit Nathan, the CEO of the company he works for, and a recognised computing genius. However, it soon becomes apparent that Nathan isn’t quite as great as he’s cracked up to be, and what begins as a dream soon becomes a nightmare. Caleb agrees to take part in Nathan’s Turing Test, swayed by the chance to quiz the first truly intelligent AI, but he soon realises that an intelligent machine can have stories to tell, stories which he might not want to hear. Nathan is a man living in seclusion with only his intellect and his creations to keep him company, and Caleb soon wishes that things had stayed that way.
This story contains plenty of elements which people could find intriguing, for example, the idea of a Turing test, which is basically a test whereby an individual asks a series of questions and decides if the answers come from a person or a machine; if the answers are given by a machine and the person is unable to realise, it is said that the machine could be intelligent. The film also tackles the idea that we can know everything there is to know about colour, without actually understanding what the experience of seeing colour really is. These are concepts which I’ve played with during my time at university, and they are worth learning a bit more about, which is a positive aspect of this film. It’s a great thing when a film can engage its audience and give people food for thought, leaving them talking about the subject matter in a positive way once they leave the cinema.
Nevertheless, although these ideas are fun to think about, they aren’t quite the revelations that the writers would have you believe. It was incredibly annoying that more wasn’t done with them, and that they weren’t better explained. Furthermore, the fact that Nathan asked Caleb if he had heard of a Turing test was just plain ridiculous. If Caleb hadn’t heard of the test then the film should’ve ended right there, with a stern look and a prompt sacking!
“Ex Machina” opened in a rather underwhelming and awkward manner, as we witnessed Caleb winning his trip to see Nathan. This first scene had a straight-to-video quality, rather than the polished feeling that a film with a multi-million dollar budget should have, because the way in which the texts of congratulations popped onto the screen was both tacky and recycled, and I expected better from a movie which looked so brilliant in the trailers.
Things didn’t immediately improve from that point either. When we were first introduced to Nathan and his intentions were revealed, things still didn’t feel quite right. The immediate objection to this is that things weren’t meant to feel happy with sunshine and rainbows, Nathan was supposed to seem slightly strange and not all there, so the tone was intentional. However, I don’t mean that things didn’t feel right in the foreboding or intentional sense, I mean that things weren’t right in the ‘I am watching a film right now’ kind of sense. I wasn’t drawn into what was happening on screen, and I was actually quite underwhelmed.
I didn’t really engage with what was happening until Ava (Alicia Vikander) made her first appearance. But, from the moment she appeared, to the moment the end credits began to roll, I was hanging on every word, trying to judge what I would think if I had been put in Caleb’s situation. I like to think that my cynical nature would lead me to reject the possibility that Ava could be conscious, because I’m not overly enamoured by the idea that consciousness can exist outside the human condition, but I have to admit that Vikander’s portrayal of a robot pretending to be like a human was rather impressive. (That description will make sense once you’ve seen the film, trust me).
The performances were pretty good. Oscar Isaac gave another stellar performance as Nathan, the unhinged alcoholic mastermind, and Alicia Vikander was absolutely astounding as Ava, even if she wasn’t on screen as much as I would’ve liked. Nevertheless, the leading man never really sold me. Domhnall Gleeson is a decent actor, and I have loved him in everything I’ve seen him in before, especially “Black Mirror”, but he felt a class below his fellow actors in this film. This was part of the reason why this movie didn’t hit the heights that I told myself it would before entering the cinema, so I have to bring it up as an issue, despite the fact that he isn’t actually bad in the film.
Oscar Isaac’s performance was slightly disturbing, and it was very entertaining to see him have fun with the role. He was effectively playing the villain of the piece, which becomes apparent early on, and he does this with such eccentricity and glee that you can’t help but like him. He really is a creep, and his psychological manipulation of Caleb is both scary and despicable, but what’s really notable is the fact that he puts across a sense of both control and supremacy. You feel as though Nathan knows that he’s the one in the wrong, but at the same time he doesn’t think that there’s any reason to shy away from that, instead he embraces it for the good of himself and his research.
Vikander was the star of the show by all accounts, she was thoughtful and calculating, which is just the impression she needed to give in order to convince Caleb that she really was an AI. Without her compelling performance Isaac wouldn’t have been able to be as intense and frightening as he was, because you need to feel as though Nathan is hurting a person by what he’s doing, not just a machine. By person here I mean a conscious being, because it’s pretty clear that Ava isn’t a human being in the physical sense (her insides are on show for the majority of the film and they are far from human). Vikander’s performance captured my imagination, because it genuinely felt as though I was watching a robot for the majority of the film. Her movements were very deliberate, and her delivery was spot on, portraying just enough humanity to pass off as having consciousness, whilst also having the necessary robotic feel with every step taken and sentence uttered.
“Ex Machina” is a visually striking piece of work, which is noteworthy because without stellar special effects this film would’ve lost all of its appeal, or never had any to begin with. The effects give the illusion that you’re genuinely watching a robot talk to a human, and without that the film would’ve been an absolute waste of time. (SPOILER ALERT) The imagery in the film is truly fantastic, particularly towards the end, as we watch the previous versions of Nathan’s work attempt to escape their solitary Hell. Robotic arms break and are slashed off, artificial skin is taken from the body of decommissioned robots, and it all looks completely real.
The film also boasts a synth score which was fabulous; it slowly progressed in volume and in speed, ramping up the tension at just the right times, giving the whole film a technological, robotic feel. Without this sound permeating through the tense final scenes there wouldn’t have been the same fear or excitement, and the brilliance of the final scenes would’ve been lost.
There were a couple of holes in the story towards the end of the film, which is always annoying and leaves a sour taste in the audience’s mouth. A movie should never leave something up to the audience if it would be beneficial to explain it, and I feel that in this case “Ex Machina” makes a rookie mistake, in a scene involving a helicopter. The details that were required to make this scene believable were simply ignored, which I can’t understand, because to make things better would’ve required no more than ten seconds of film. I have to think that the director overlooked this scene for the sake of being concise, in order to maintain the impact of the events which immediately preceded it, but I feel that this was an idiotic, unpleasant, and altogether thoughtless mistake.
Overall this is a well-executed movie which I enjoyed, but sadly it wasn’t as good as I expected it to be. There are two excellent performances, some fantastic imagery, and an interesting ending, and together these features make up for the fact that the film doesn’t take a step into greatness at any point. However, the writers seem to think that quoting other people is worth more than having something worthwhile to say, which frustrated me greatly, and although Vikander’s performance was both compelling and intelligent, I never truly believed that AI was possible. Therefore, this film goes down as fairly good, but ultimately disappointing in my book.