Somewhere between M.C. Escher sketches and Stanley Kubrick nightmares lies the contemporary classic sci-fi Ex Machina.
Caleb, a young programmer at a Google/Apple-esque tech powerhouse, is recruited by its CEO Nathan on a special assignment. He is flown by helicoptor to Nathan’s secluded home, a sleek labyrinth of glass and stone, to perform the Turing Test on Nathan’s new Artificial Intelligence creation: Ava. In a series of sessions, Caleb meets with Ava, a robot with a lean, white female appearance, to test whether she passes the test for Artificial Intelligence and thinking for “herself.” These discussions are recorded on video, and Caleb checks in regularly with Nathan to fill him in on his progress.
What Caleb doesn’t share is when the power goes out and the cameras cease to function, or so he is told by Nathan and later Ava. The Ava under surveillance of her creator is calm and complacent, while the off-camera Ava flirts with Caleb and warns him that Nathan is not to be trusted.
Ex Machina is a spellbinding power play not only between these three figures, but between the film and us, the audience. The three main players are never fully honest with each other, and we the audience feel somewhat in the dark on the action before us.
For some movies, this disconnect can seem frustrating, but for Ex Machina it becomes all the more thrilling. There is an exciting irony in a story concerning emotional manipulation between man and robot, told through a medium of fake, recorded images manipulating our senses. We fall for this story, as we do any piece of fiction, just as the characters fall for the others’ emotional trickery.
This film contains echoes of Kubrick in visual style and foreboding intensity, but Ex Machina‘s nomination for Best Original Screenplay is a highly deserved one. There isn’t really a film like this, and it was so exhilarating to watch a movie unfold and you have no idea where it’s going. I’m confident a second visit to Ex Machina will uncover even more layers than I’ve written here, but this initial viewing was a terrific experience with one of the most surprising and truly spellbinding thrillers I’ve seen in recent memory.