Friday, May 8, 2015

"Ex Machina": Decent High Concept Sci-Fi Done Decently

Now In Theaters
A friend invited me to see Ex Machina on a whim, reportedly because it has an insanely high score on Rotten Tomatoes.  We sat down in the darkened theater, made some jokes about the trailers and settled down for what was promised to be a great experience.  Two hours later, as the lights went up and the credits started to roll, we looked at each other and gave a resounding “Yeah, that was pretty alright I guess.”

Caleb, who works for Bluebook (the film’s fictional equivalent to Google), finds himself selected in a contest to go and spend a week with Bluebook’s founder, Nathan.  As Caleb arrives via helicopter to the isolated mountain home, it quickly becomes clear that he is not so much Charlie on his way to the chocolate factory as he is at the mercy of his benefactor.  Nathan soon reveals (after a non-disclosure agreement) that he believes he has invented a true artificial intelligence, and he has brought Caleb to the testing facility in order to put this new consciousness’s legitimacy to the test.  Enter Ava, robotic intelligence given femininely human form.  As Caleb and Ava interact, it becomes clearer that Nathan is not being entirely truthful about the nature of this experiment, and Caleb decides he needs to go down the rabbit hole and get to the truth of Nathan’s intentions and Ava’s true nature.

This set-up works really well for a couple of things, perhaps most obvious being the performances of the minimal cast.  Oscar Isaac is always a personal favorite of mine, and he absolutely kills it as the drunken, lonely Nathan, resorting to the companionship of a crafted woman and a complete stranger in order to fulfill his need for interaction.  Also great though are Domhnall Gleeson as a gradually less naïve Caleb and Alicia Vikander as Ava, who feels like a natural conversationalist until you notice her mechanical speech patterns and slight stutter in her walk.

This premise is also perfect to address classic science fiction themes of the nature of consciousness, the ethics of creating new life, and the implications of artificial intelligence functioning at cognitive levels beyond those of humans.  This is all very interesting stuff, but it is also where the film faces its biggest problems.  See, because the film spends so much time in familiar territory with its philosophy, it never really breaks beyond the bonds of its predictable storytelling.  Almost every one of the film’s major narrative twists is way too heavily telegraphed beforehand, either because it is a similar twist to a film that has come before it, or the foreshadowing ends up being a bit too “fore” and not enough “shadow.”  This in no way lessens the impact of the performances or the philosophy that the film grounds its theming in, but it does cause certain scenes to feel like a mechanical necessity, particularly in the film’s climax, where the inevitable end is teased for what feels like an excessive period of time.

That said, though, Ex Machina is not a bad film, and it was certainly an enjoyable one.  Whether you enjoy good character acting or tales of roboethics, Ex Machina is likely to offer something you’ll enjoy.  Just don’t get too upset when the finale is not quite as shocking as the film keeps promising.

Does a predictable film necessarily mean a bad film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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