Cult films to see before you die: Ex Machina

James Oliver 30 November -0001

Ex Machina is more than your average Sci-Fi flick – this artificial intelligence film has brains. James Oliver explains why it has earned a place in his cult films hall of fame. 

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Let's be honest: most Science Fiction movies do not offer much to tax their audience's intellect. While literary Science Fiction prides itself upon its intelligence, movie Sci-Fi shunts all that smart stuff in the background, the better to concentrate on laser-beams and asteroids. But Sci-Fi is capable of so much more. Want the proof? Just look at Ex Machina. 

After only a few months of being released Ex Machina has already attracted a substantial following of folks who are looking for something a bit more substantial than the average Sci-Fi blockbuster.

We begin with Caleb, played by the ever-watchable Domhnall Gleeson. Caleb is a shy computer programmer and he has just won a competition organised by the vast computer company  for whom he works (think Google, think Apple). His prize is to spend a week with the company's genius, but reclusive, founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac, doing absolutely nothing to dispel the chatter that's he's one of the most exciting actors of his generation) doing geek stuff at Nathan's fortress of solitude.

Or so Caleb thinks. It is only after he arrives that he learns Nathan had an ulterior motive for running his competition: Caleb is to help Nathan test his latest invention. She is called Ava, she is played, very well, by Alicia Vikander and she is a synthetic life form ('robot' is perhaps too primitive a description).

Ex Machina, cult science fiction
Image via Nziff

She certainly looks the part but her inventor isn't sure if all her programming is up to snuff, and that's why he's brought Caleb to meet her. He wants to know if Ava can pass for human. In other words, Nathan wants to know if he has created a new form of life.

There is much more to the film than this bald outline allows for; quite apart from the film's more cerebral aspects, Ex Machina works as a cracking thriller. It's (essentially) only a three hander but loyalties switch and agendas blur in ways that a young Roman Polanski would be proud of.

But writer-director Alex Garland has ambitions beyond suspense and intrigue. Ever since around the time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Science Fiction has been an way for artists to explore the anxieties which surround the encroachment of new technologies into every day life and that's just what Garland does here.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
Image via Geek and Sundry 

Ex Machina addresses one of the most fundamental themes of modern life, about how our relationship with technology is becoming ever more intimate and even personal. It is a theme that has, admittedly, been addressed before in movies – obliquely, by The Social Network and more directly (and more whimsically) in Her.

However, neither of those films explored the topic (and its implications) with the cool perception that Garland does here; he stages sequences where the characters explore not just the ethics but also the science of Nathan's projects (scenes which would be quite unthinkable in a Hollywood Sci-Fi flick, incidentally), throwing out ideas which sound horribly plausible. What it offers us is a glimpse of what a world designed by an unstable geek might look like, for Nathan is not the most well-balanced of men. Let us hope that the tech billionaires reshaping our own world are rather better adjusted.

Beyond all these very contemporary ideas are much older questions, concerning what it means to be human. To explain too much would be to venture into the territory of spoilers but suffice it to say that the film's ultimate answers to those questions are not pretty: it is not as complimentary about our species as perhaps it might be.

Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina
Image via New York Times 

By any standards, this is an exceptionally accomplished piece of filmmaking, all the more so since it is technically a debut; although Garland has knocked about a bit as a novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later) and producer (Dredd), this is his first film as director. He does a fine job: never losing track of the story that underpins all the philosophical speculation. A film that could, in the wrong hands, have been a glorified TED talk becomes instead something so much more.

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