Minds and Metal
By Adam Sturrock
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Latin: [ˈɛks ˈmaː.kʰɪ.naː]
Since the dawn of modern technology, humans have endeavored to create an equal. Not constrained by mortal capacity or trapped by blood and bones, robots have equally fascinated and frustrated people. No matter how many lines of code we write or screws we piece together, they fail to break the barrier between organic and inorganic. They fail to love, to fear, to flirt or dream like humans; no matter how much we try, they are seemingly doomed between the lines of man and machine.
“Are humans really doomed to being a peerless race?” asks Ex_machina. Writer and debut director, Alex Garland, meticulously outlines a near-future world in which humanoid AI are ever closer to reality; boy, it is frightening.
The plot follows the path of Caleb (Gleeson), a talented programmer that wins a lottery to spend a week with his reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). In the middle of a massive reserve, lives a maze of metal and glass; Nathan’s home, but it is a husk of cold technology rather than anything suggesting warmth. The CEO, while trying to act laddish, has failed to ever gain any semblance of empathy after building the biggest search engine in the world from a young age. He was a prodigy, but he spends his time by himself in the middle of nowhere, getting shitfaced on Greygoose and Becks. To be honest, he’s kind of a creepy dude.
After an extensive introduction to his world and given a thorough and invasive form to sign, Caleb discovers that he is the guinea pig in a experiment to create self aware AI. If everything goes to plan, he will be the meat in between the biggest slice of history; in the company of Gods. The AI that Caleb has to scrutinize is AVA (Vikander), a sleek, humanoid robot with whirring metalic organs revealed under a transluscent body. She kind of looked like an old iMac with a face and arms, but with a disarming curiosity that borders on the line between flirtatious and naive.
Over time, Caleb builds a relationship with her, but he is cautiously aware of if her friendship is just another line of programming by Nathan or if her overtures towards him are genuine. This results in a triangle of deceit and paranoia between creator, creation and common man. This thriller works so well because even when we think we can see right through the characters that the actors play, something unforeseen sneaks its way through. Nothing is at surface level as it seems.
The film wouldn’t be near as good if the AI at the heart of the story wasn’t believable. Alicia Vikander is absolutely spellbinding as AVA. There is this ballerina-esque grace that comes from every minute movement that she makes, a nuanced threat that never fully breaks the surface of her calm demeanor. A close second goes to Oscar Isaacs, who can quickly slink in between ominous brute and fairly alarming dance maniac on a dime.
Out of the three, we are forced to ask, who is the most human? The man who spends his time in isolation, the lab-made robot or the coder who is without a true family? What qualities truly make us human? If you can simulate love and hate and distrust, does it make you equal to everyone else? Rather than worry about her consciousness, which would be the goal of the Turing Test, the film ironically worries about sexuality as the main indicator, ironic because the film is mostly sexless.
With such a confident and entertaining film, it can be hard to forget that this is the first time that Alex Garland has stepped forward into the director’s chair. In the past, Garland has taken us to zombie infested London in 28 Days Later, to block tower slums in Dredd and in Ex_machina, to the edge of our seats.
In its seductive cinematic style, EM sticks inside your head. It’s one of those meaty films that you can still savour afterwards, and leaves you wanting more.