Breaking genre rules is the spice of cinema life and Ex Machina (2015) breaks them all as a hybrid sci-fi chamber thriller with pretensions of stretching science into the realm of the gods (the title alludes to ‘god from machine’). Science fiction films exist to provoke awe and even fear at the power of science, and today it is focused especially on the field of artificial intelligence and the possibility that man will one day create a sentient being capable of self-redesign (a hypothetical point futurists call ‘the singularity’). The ‘chamber’ dynamic puts a small number of people into a confined space over a short period of time to intensify their interactions, and when their intentions are unknown or unhinged, the thriller genre emerges in all its frightening glory.
These are the key ingredients of a story in which IT nerd Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to spend a week with his firm’s reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) during which he will administer a Turing test to the boss’s newest creation, an android called Eva (Alicia Vikander). As an historical aside, this still influential test was developed in 1950 by the ‘father of computing’ Alan Turing to tell the difference between humans and robots. Put simply, if the answers given by an android can pass as human, then artificial intelligence is said to exist. Caleb is thrilled by the opportunity, even if the bearded beer-swilling iron-pumping CEO gives him the creeps. But it’s a chess game of guessing what is happening, who is manipulating who, and what is the real reason Caleb is there. Ultimately the story poses the question: is it possible for a human creation to rise against its human creator? If you think this is fantasy, Google ‘the singularity’.
With brilliantly atmospheric photography, a secluded setting, and three well-defined characters competing for control, this is a tautly directed and well scripted sci-fi that remains within the boundaries of scientific plausibility. If anything is out of balance, it is the acting of Alicia Vikander as the android. Her presence tends to overwhelm any film in which she appears, like in the recent films The Danish Girl (2015) and Testament of Youth (2015). But that is hardly criticism. This is an intelligent, engaging and thoughtful exploration of where the field of artificial intelligence stands today, where it is heading, and the issues to be confronted as we look beyond our current knowledge horizons.
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac