Review: Ex Machina


Ex MachinaScreenwriter Alex Garland is responsible for a number of highly regarded science-fiction screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. With Ex Machina, which opened Friday, Garland for the first time adds directing on top of his writing credits. Ex Machina has taken the film festival circuit by storm and received accolades as a Drafthouse Recommends title. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie is overrated.

Ex Machina is a richly beautiful, smart, thought-provoking work of science fiction that unfortunately suffers from a viciously sexist underlying theme. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a charismatic cyber genius who at the age of 13, wrote the software that would eventually become Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee chosen by lottery, to spend a week at his remote estate for a kind of sick Willy Wonka-esque robot nightmare tour.

Nathan explains to Caleb that he has been brought to spend the week playing the human role in the Turing Test, a standard of artificial intelligence research in which a human and an AI interact. The AI passes the test if the human can't tell he's talking to a computer. Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test.

But Nathan's plan is darker and unclear. He spends his mornings working out and his evenings passing out drunk with very little time in between for any real scientific research, and during ominous power outages Ava (Alicia Vikander) tells Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted. Tensions mount as Caleb is so convinced by Ava that he begins to doubt his own humanity.

So why do I call it sexist? Aside from gratuitous nudity and the fratboy lifestyle Nathan leads, the premise of this film is two men sitting in judgement of an innocent woman, deciding her fate. She lives her very brief life on a leash, completely under the control of Nathan, subject to his whims and frustrations. Caleb falls head-over-heels in love with her in the blink of an eye, and then she is presented as a manipulative stereotype, using her sexual appeal to influence him. 

I think largely the appeal people find in Ex Machina depends on being similarly charmed by the Ava character. If you don't see things from Caleb's viewpoint and likewise fall under Ava's spell, the glamour doesn't work. The closest comparison that comes to mind is Black Swan, a film that received rave reviews from straight males but turned the stomachs of many other audience members. One could be forgiven for thinking a better title would have been Sex Machina. The entire plot of the movie depends on Ava being a female character rather than exhibiting gender-neutral or male identity.

With a deliberate pacing that borders on just slow, Ex Machina's 108-minute running time felt very much like a full two hours. I found much to enjoy, especially stunning art direction and cinematography complemented by a futuristic minimalist score and superior performances from Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander. I liked it, and I wish I could say I loved it, but it fell short of that mark.

Turing Test

"Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test."

The robot could be remotely controlled by a human; what it says could be coming from a person. The test would be a valid one. To be scientific you'd want to test both cases against a number of people. In Social Psychology experiments, people are sometimes given misleading or false information as part of the experiment.