Verdict: Gripping and discussion-provoking sci-fi driven by thought rather than action, and no less entertaining for that.
When whizz computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a prize comprising a week in a remote Alaskan lab assessing the results of his mega-wealthy boss Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) artificial intelligence experiments, he is understandby elated. Turns out Nathan is an enigmatic mix, on one hand an eccentric tech genius, on the other a hard-drinking gym-junkie whose buddy-buddy manner jars with the sense that something dark and vaguely threatening lurks beneath – as evidenced by his callous attitude towards his non-English-speaking Japanese maid cum sex slave. Caleb doesn’t know what to make of him or his hi-tech hideaway, which offers luxurious accommodation and facilities, yet feels increasingly like a prison.
However, he is amazed by his boss’s android creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose AI exceeds all expectations. Indeed, she seems human in mind – and in body, were it not for transparent sections through which her internal mechanical workings can be seen. The use of CGI is truly impressive here in that it is limited only to creating a brilliantly believable android, rather than going gratuitously overboard in quest of spectacular special effects, as is far too often the case.
When Ava confides in Caleb during a power outage that Nathan is observing them in their interactions, the narrative dynamic changes in a most fascinating manner, opening the way for an unusual development that begs some ethical and philosophical questions. That is, Caleb begins to see Ava not as an android, but as a human female (a damned hot one!) trapped in a machine. Thus, the human vs machine conflict so common in sci-fi is subverted: this time, human and machine join forces against a common human oppressor. But is Caleb right to turn against his own like this? Should androids have human rights? Can they be exploited, or as creations of humankind are they ours to treat however we wish? And what of the dangers that come with perfected AI? Can a machine with AI be trusted? If AI is truly achieved, does not a drive for self-preservation and the capability of deciding to act for good and evil come with it?
As the narrative progresses ever more intriguingly to an unpredictable conclusion, some of the answers to these questions are alluded to, while others are left enticingly hanging, inviting rumination.
The performances are all solid, and the piece is beautifully shot.
On the down side, there are some gaping plot holes. Most do not significantly detract from the work, but one is a real clanger. The security of the lab complex depends on number-coded keycards. Voice, fingerprint and/or facial recognition would surely be basic security measures in a set-up as technically sophisticated as this. It’s hard to forgive a logic flaw as fundamental as this, because the keycards serve a pivotal function in driving the narrative to its conclusion.
That gripe aside, Ex-Machina is sci-fi driven by thought rather than action, and is no less entertaining for that. It’s gripping and discussion-provoking stuff. Recommended.
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