“Ex Machina” was the perfect follow-up to watching “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In many ways, the films are similar. The dialogue and exposition are limited. There’s a constant flow toward something – a building tension – but you are not sure what. Both also talk about artificial intelligence and related concepts. And, for us, “Ex Machina” was the better movie despite not being as visionary as “2001”.
The movie only features four characters. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the CEO of a fictionalized version of Google who has retreated to a paradise stronghold to use the power of search engine data to fuel the creation of an artificial intelligence that can pass as human. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer at Nathan’s company who “wins” a contest to spend a week with the boss. Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the artificial intelligence. Finally, Sonoyo Mizuno, in a non-speaking role, plays Kyoko, Nathan’s A.I. servant.
My biggest takeaway from watching “Ex Machina” was how refreshing it felt to get “back to basics”. In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the A.I. HAL managed to win me over by singing as his brains were being literally pulled out. Here, Ava isn’t a fresh idea brought to the big screen for the first time. Over the last decade, we have seen a ton of media focused on artificial intelligence gone awry. For instance, a show like HBO’s Westworld that featured A.I. raising hell and fucking there way through it. In “Ex Machina”, we hit the reset button as we, the audience, and Caleb, our stand-in, meet Ava and are challenged to question her humanity, self-awareness, and agency.
Despite feeling less than fresh, it is this clean install that makes “Ex Machina” interesting. In challenging its lead to participate in a Turing test, it also challenges the audience to consider Ava as well. Rather than jump to sex and violence, “Ex Machina” is slow and intentional in a way that makes its heady concepts easier to swallow.
It doesn’t hurt that Oscar Isaac gives a marvelous performance as the asshole Nathan. It is hard not to hate and mistrust him from the first moment he is on the screen until the last. Throughout the film, he uses Caleb, but it is in his duplicity that the audience is challenged. Whether Ava has free will or not, whether she cares for Caleb or not, whether Nathan is a red herring or not. These are all the things that keep “Ex Machina” interesting. Nathan, and loathing him, is a distraction that makes everything else work.
That’s not to say that “Ex Machina” is a revelatory experience. It is less exciting simply because its a common trope these days, even if it is well-executed. Telling a great story about A.I. in the 2010’s differs little from telling a great story about zombies 15 years ago at the height of its craze: everyone is doing it, so it’s harder to stand out.
I realize I liked “Ex Machina” more as a palette cleanser than something in its own right. It helped clear out the aftertaste of “2001” and some of the lingering flavors of the second season of Westworld (which was pretty bad). And that’s not a bad thing. Diane and I both enjoyed it.
Plus, after seeing Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I will watch him in most anything once.