Review: Ex Machina – Great out of the machine

ARTIFICIAL Intelligence is a topic which every filmmaker seems desperate to stick their stamp on. Steven Spielberg’s promising Kubrick hand-me-down A.I. Artificial Intelligence was ruined by a ludicrously cheesy epilogue back in 2001; since then, whenever I hear “A.I.” in a trailer, I’m reminded of that clunking disappointment.

The sub-genre has evolved since then, though: Spike Jonze’s charming and chilling Her, for instance, was my favourite film of 2013. Now, after the thrilling Ex Machina, I’m officially a convert to the ever-growing subgenre of artificial intelligence in cinema. I went into this film without massive expectations, but came out feeling exhilarated and nervous. Built on classic Hitchcockian tension, the plot follows a reclusive billionaire genius named Nathan who, apparently at random, invites one of his employees to live in his vast high-tech mansion for one week.

The employee, a coder named Caleb, is there to meet Ava, a physically half-finished robot whose AI is apparently perfect. Nathan explains his variation on the Turing Test; if Caleb is told that Ava is a robot, and can clearly see that she’s a robot, will she still be able to convince him that she is conscious. Spoiler alert: Of course she does.

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The whole film has almost no other speaking character aside from these three. They are isolated in a stark, barren environment. A mostly silent character named Kyoko, Nathan’s enigmatic live-in housekeeper, is pretty much a walking spoiler warning who will keep you guessing throughout. The whole film will, in fact.

However you think this is going to end, odds are you’ll be surprised. Then you’ll be proven right, then proven wrong, then left wishing they’d gone with your theory because that would have been a happier ending. The less you know, the better. I thought the trailer gave too much away, but it turns out it barely revealed anything past the first half-hour, with the exception of one crucial line from much later which I really wish they’d not spoiled.

The three leads are fantastic. Domhnall Gleeson, son of the almighty Brendan, continues to build momentum and put his embarrassing last-minute insertion into the Harry Potter franchise behind him. Oscar Isaac proves again that he is one of the most exciting actors in the world right now, with last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis and his other current film A Most Violent Year showing him to be a chameleon of an actor.

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Swedish ballerina-turned-actress Alicia Vikander is a revelation as Ava, playing both a convincing machine and a convincing woman with grace, confidence and sizzling sexuality. All three are on the cusp of becoming household names, especially with Gleeson and Isaac set to star in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII.

I have no doubt that science fiction fans will like Ex Machina. It fits neatly into the pantheon as an intelligent, tense and distinctly human film. Those who dislike sci-fi may not be swayed by the film; it’s fairly bleak, and expects its audience to have at least a rudimentary understanding of AI theory. It also doesn’t try to distract from the science with a pretty love story between a man and his robot.

This is not a film in love with the beauty of humanity, or with the beauty of science. It shows the flaws of both man and machine, and the willingness of each to destroy each other and themselves. This may well be the AI film Stanley Kubrick would have come up with if he’d lived long enough to realise that his original idea wasn’t going to work out.

So definitely go to check out Ex Machina. And when you do, remember it’s pronounced “Ma-kin-na”. When I bought my ticket, I was complimented by the cashier for being the only person who’d said it correctly all night. It’ll make you look smart!

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