Man creates machine. Man is god. Man gives machine intelligence. Machine becomes self aware. Who is god now? Sentient artificial intelligence has always been a big theme in science fiction. From 1927’s Metropolis to more modern tales such as Blade Runner and the Matrix, we have a fascination with the combination of machine parts and code that could work and think on a human level. A lot of the stories that prominently feature artificial intelligence rely on similar ideas–either going for the more action focused route of an AI that becomes cognizant and starts fucking things up (the Terminator), or ones that are more introspective, bringing into question what it means to be human (Her). Ex Machina is neither an action film nor is it a drama. What it does is combine the main themes around artificial intelligence, including the human role in all of it (“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa.”, into a slow building thriller that delivers one of the more satisfying “believable” science fiction films I have seen in recent years.
The story is simple enough. A programmer at a Google-esque company wins a contest to stay at a retreat with his company’s reclusive CEO. When he gets there he discovers the true purpose for his visit: to administer the Turing test to the world’s first true artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a realistic looking female android (played by Alicia Vikander). The Turing test, for the uninitiated, is a test to see if a computer can exhibit behavior that is indistinguishable from that of a human. The story follows these three characters as they all bond for the first time. Written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), the story moves at just the right pace, fast enough so the viewer never gets bored, but slow enough to build the appropriate amount of tension that make that final payoff well worth it. Ex Machina is a thriller at heart and Garland knows how to make your palms sweat.
Garland is aided by excellent production design, cinematography, and special effects, all of which are designed to make the viewer feel slightly unsettled, even in moments of relative calm. The facility the tale takes place in is simultaneously awe inspiring and terrifying, making you just the right amount of trepidatious as to what comes next. Add in an excellent performance by Vikander as the android and you’re right there with the protagonist in wondering where the line between human and machine actually is.
To go into any more story detail than that is to ruin an ending that will knock you on your ass. But it is science fiction, so as the collective dwellers of sci fi forums have no doubt debated at length, is the science here bunk? Maybe, I’m not nearly well versed enough in AI to know, but I don’t give a shit. I was too wrapped in up the story to care. And that’s the hallmark of good science fiction, not if it is plausible, but if it sparks the imagination and is believable enough where you can overlook any flaws because you’re so engrossed in the rest of it. And the fantastic story telling more than make up for any shortcoming in the science part of the film. And did I mention that ending?