Employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to cooperate with the CEO of a Google-like organization, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is flown to Nathan’s private abode where the CEO introduces him to his newest project, an artificial intelligence. It is up to Caleb to figure out if the AI is sufficiently human-like.
When this movie first came out, people were gushing all over it. Everybody found this robot movie that quietly sneaked into the theatres, and because the marketing for it was understated it felt all a bit obscure and like discovering a hidden treasure. A slow and thoughtful movie that was in danger of disappearing quickly without notice, so everywhere people were spreading it on word of mouth that it is amazing and the best thing ever.
Well, it is quite good but I wouldn’t call it the best thing ever. It is refreshing though to have a robot movie that tackles some of the philosophical implications of creating artificial life while movies like Transformers and Terminator Genisys are playing. There is a strange duality happening in Hollywood in which robots and AI are either fodder for action movies in which robots and networks are evil and need to be stopped (Avengers; Age of Ultron, Terminator Genisys), or we are dazzled by the implications of AI and what it means for humanity. This more philosophical look is sometimes done very well (Her) or not so well (Transcendence), or I have no idea what the hell they were going for (Chappie). Ex Machina is part of that philosophical path and on the done-well side of it.
What makes this movie succeed isn’t so much the questions it raises about what it means to be human, what it means to feel emotions, what it means to have rights. Sure, the movie makes you think about these issues and that might have been the most important reason for shooting this film in the first place. And I have noticed people talking about these issues afterwards so in that sense the movie succeeded in that goal. But the biggest success of this movie is that it created the right atmosphere to get people invested in these ideas.
Especially for slow, thoughtful movies the acting and the atmosphere, the tone, the locations and the whole feel of the movie are so crucial to make it a success, and director Alex Garland has done this very well. Domhnall Gleeson, playing the main character, is an actor who radiates vulnerability and is well cast for that. Oscar Isaac as Nathan plays the best role of the movie. All the time while he and Caleb are interacting you feel that there is just something off about this guy, and it raises the tension. The location, this solitary house, cut off from the rest of the world, heightens the tension further. The whole situation and setting is beautiful but feels too controlled, too uncomfortable. You just know that something is off, without the movie spelling it out for you.
This unnamed, undefined tension keeps rising throughout the movie. It’s masterfully done.
What I didn’t like was that the AI was shaped and presented as a pretty girl and the predictable consequences of that. It somehow panders to the expectation that this is a film fit only for nerdy boys who identify with the shy main character who starts falling for the female robot. The characters do address this in one of the scenes why the AI was created like this, but it feels like an excuse. Films about lonely men who fall for an artificially created women are a variation on the manic-pixie-dream-girl cliché, in which a woman who is special and vulnerable and different than all the others is there to inject some energy and meaning into the life of a lonely man. The film Her (2013) went the same way, but it was more honest about it. Her was about the (im)possibility of that very relationship, while Ex Machina uses it as a trope. I would have liked to see a different kind of storyline to address the same philosophical issues. For me, this lowers the film from very good to merely good, but I would still recommend it to anyone.