Film takes new spin on artificial intelligence

by Andy Decker correspondent

As computers have become increasingly sophisticated and attributes of human personalities are further incorporated into their programming, modern sci-fi has likewise grown in its obsession with artificial intelligence. The latest film to join the party is “Ex Machina.”

The film marks the directorial debut of creative screenwriter Alex Garland, the mind behind “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” While its concept may not be particularly original, Garland approaches the subject with enough uniqueness and charm to make it worthwhile.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a young programmer who is selected in a contest to be flown to an isolated estate and participate in giving a breakthrough A.I. a Turing test, the ultimate benchmark in proving an A.I. to be indistinguishable from human consciousness.

Led by eccentric inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb engages in a series of controlled conversations with an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which slowly begin to cast doubt on the reality of what is true and what is ethical.

Gleeson continues his trend of expanding into more-challenging films through less-challenging roles with a performance that is solid in quality if ultimately unremarkable. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, alternatively, excel, with Isaac bringing a healthy dose of personality and humanity to his character that brings his scenes to life. Vikander superbly blurs the lines between robot and human, her performance equal parts mechanical and expressive.

“Ex Machina’s” greatest asset by far is its script. Here, Garland has written one of his finest thrillers yet, building the slow-burn tension by carefully feeding viewers just enough new information to hold attention and peel the layers of mystery back further. The proceedings are not exactly heart-racing, but neither are they dull.

While most films regarding A.I. tend to explore the notion of what it means to be human, Garland concerns himself more with the creators, questioning both them and the ever-dwindling differences between gods and men. The questions he asks are rarely explored with depth, but it is nonetheless a welcome and refreshing approach on the subject matter.

Most impressively, the script boasts some of the best use of misdirection in cinema since “The Prestige” or “The Sixth Sense,” albeit far more subtle in its subterfuge and reveal.

Garland brings his script to life with deft skill and vision. Shot on-location in Norway, outdoor scenes provide stunning contrast between nature and machine, visualizing themes with breathtaking splendor. The use of color, shape and lighting cues add to the disparity and aid in the juggling of sharp turns in tone and the pulsing, electronic score drills suspense to the core. It could hardly be considered “visionary,” but it’s certainly impressive in form for a first-time director.

Indeed, Alex Garland doesn’t tread any particularly new ground with “Ex Machina,” but he brings in enough fresh perspective and voice to make the film worthy of the price of admission. It’s quite good, perhaps even great, and it will likely stand out as one of the best independent sci-fi productions of 2015. At the very least, it will surely linger with you for a long while after you walk out of the cinema, and that’s one of the kindest things that can be said about any film.

Disclaimer: “Ex Machina” is rated R and contains extended scenes of graphic nudity. Please approach with proper discretion.

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