The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Ex Machina

There have been a lot of movies about artificial intelligence, some pretty good, others pretty silly. Ex Machina ranks among the very best. The directorial debut of novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later), the film is a fine example of what good science-fiction should be. The story is intelligent and provocative, with more than a little relevance to the world we live in. Whereas many pictures use A.I. as an excuse for action sequences, Ex Machina employs it in the name of questioning where technology might take us and whether it may someday place us, as one of the main characters suggests, on the verge of extinction.

Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken) plays Caleb, a young computer coder at a company run by Nathan (Inside Llewyn Davis's Oscar Isaac). He wins a lottery that allows him to travel to the boss's remote compound for a top secret project. Once there, Nathan asks him to sign a somewhat intimidating non-disclosure agreement. He soon understands why. Nathan claims to have perfected artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to get to know his robotic creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to see if she passes the test. As he begins to interact with her, it becomes apparent that something is seriously amiss.

I will not tell you anything specific that happens beyond this point in Ex Machina, but I will tell you the theme it develops. Garland is clearly interested in the ramifications of A.I. As Caleb gets to know Ava, he realizes that Nathan has given her a variety of human qualities, including sexuality. The movie looks at what it might mean if technology gets to the point where humans can be wholly simulated. There's a teasing suggestion in the screenplay that truly achieving artificial intelligence would entail replicating the good, the bad, and the in-between of people. In other words, machines would have to be just as morally complicated as human beings are. The thing that separates us from them now is that we're not always entirely logical. Removing consistent logic from a machine would seem to be the deciding factor in creating true A.I. Garland, thankfully, doesn't paint this idea as totally good or bad; he simply implies that it would lead to unexpected complications. Would actual humans still be needed?

The story offers up a steady series of developments, always moving in a direction you don't expect. (I thought I had the entire thing figured out in the first twenty minutes; it gives me great pleasure to say that I was wrong.) Suspense is generated not by wondering whether something awful will happen, but by curiosity as to what each new circumstance means. Pieces of what Nathan is really up to are doled out slowly. When they come together in the third act, they lead to some very surprising twists. But Ex Machina isn't the kind of movie to throw twists in simply to trick the audience. Each and every one of them is earned honestly. They are entirely faithful to the ideas the story so carefully lays out.

As a director, Alex Garland displays a sense of patience that is refreshing. Ex Machina doesn't have a ton of editing. Garland uses long, steady shots, allowing us to absorb all the details in his widescreen compositions. Every frame of the movie is almost like a painting, meant to be examined for detail and intent. That gives it a cool ambiance, while simultaneously allowing us to absorb the ideas being explored.

The performances are also quite good. Domhnall Gleeson is perfectly cast as the young man who's both fascinated and skeptical of his boss's project. As that boss, Oscar Isaac beautifully walks a fine line. We can tell Nathan isn't some evil genius, yet he also seems to continually hold things close to the vest, which makes him a bit dubious. Portraying Ava, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son) has the difficult task of creating a character who isn't human but is very human-like. She hits just the right balance, so that we empathize with Ava while also sensing that something is slightly off about her.

Ex Machina ends on a note that hits several seemingly opposite emotional beats at the same time. It's a heck of a way to go out one that ensures the movie lingers in your mind for a while. There's so much to chew on here that it is probably safe to say that the film plays even better on a second viewing. Ex Machina needs to be absorbed, and it's totally worth the effort.

( 1/2 out of four)

Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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