Ex Machina (2015) Review
“Ex machina” means “out of/from the machine,” and derives from the Greek dramatic tradition of “deus ex machina”—“god out of the machine”—in which a deity was lowered onto a stage by a sort of crane at the end of a play in order to neatly wrap up all its narrative loose ends. It has since come to represent a contrived solution to a problem external to the mechanics of the situation (something like “ta-da!”). Why this film’s title takes out “god,” or what “out of the machine” is supposed to mean, is not entirely apparent. In fact, it makes little sense in the context of the film’s themes or outcome, since there's no magical plot device to save the story.
That said, first-time director Alex Garland, who is also a talented writer (The Beach, 28 Days Later…, Sunshine), presents here an interesting study of human nature versus artificial intelligence. An awkward young coder (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to participate in a Turing test against a hyper-sexualized robot containing AI developed solely by a seclusive young genius (Oscar Isaac). This can’t of course, be taking place in our current world, but it is set in an extremely near and relatable future. Futurology is less the film’s concern than the comparison at hand, however, and the focused isolation of the setting reflects this.
In such a film, there are a few key concerns. The foremost, for me, was why the robot was hyper-sexualized; such a blatantly commercial tactic seems to undermine the credibility of the AI and of the story. Another concern was how this film would tackle the subject of the blurred line between human and AI without retreading old philo-sci-fi ground. It turns out the story directly handled both of these issues with some success, but still left much to be desired.
In the first place, the setup itself is hard to buy. When Gleeson, helicoptering over the vast wilderness toward the undisclosed location, asks his pilot where the property starts, the pilot laughs and says they’ve been flying over it for two hours. I don’t see how it’s plausible to posit a genius that owns such a large swath of untouched nature, lives completely alone, and invents everything all by himself. It’s too over-the-top. On the other hand, I see why a writer, a director, and a producer would want to boil things down in this way. It’s easier on the mind and on the film’s budget, but a sensical choice it isn’t.
Fortunately, Oscar Isaac turns out to be the real star of the show. If you see this film for no other reason than to witness this phenomenal young powerhouse digging his feet in, it will be worth it. Isaac is reminiscent of a young Pacino with his multivalent line deliveries and his ability to threaten you behind big, empathetic, knowing eyes. Without him, in fact, the film loses about 90 percent of its charisma.
So how do the big questions play out? Coming to your own conclusions is half the point. What you should know beforehand is that there is a valid reason the AI is sexualized, which turns out to be central to the plot. A few intellectually engaging questions about human and non-human motivations ensue. Where things fall apart are in the pacing, in Gleeson’s god-awful shy-boy act (again), and in its unwillingness to push its questions further, dwelling instead on very clever, very naked robot ladies learning freedom like children for the majority of the ending. Overall, the mental edge of the writing is abandoned in favor of aesthetic self-congratulation. But it is gorgeously shot, and amusing enough just to get by.