'Ex Machina' review: A heady, seductive analysis of humanity, consciousness
The focused, thought-provoking and compelling science fiction drama "Ex Machina" (expanding to theaters nationwide April 17) is arguably the best film released this spring, could end up the best sci-fi of the year and will absolutely be in the "best movies of 2015" discussion.
In short: Reclusive genius and tech CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, to participate in a groundbreaking experiment: test the human qualities of the advanced artificial intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander). (Watch the trailer)
"Ex Machina" is a lean yet richly dense work of science fiction. As a drama, this is a focused, tension-filled dynamic between an everyman, a creator and a new form of awareness. As a piece of sci-fi, it examines the inevitability of artificial intelligence, blurred definitions of true consciousness and where the limits exist between the rights of the creators and the rights of the created.
This is a marvelously cast trio of main characters - the importance of this cannot be understated. The entirety of this movie involves just three main characters played by Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander, with a fourth, nearly silent character (Sonoya Mizuno) whose presence is quiet but seemingly ever-present in the shadows. These three leading actors put this movie - and its heavy dramatic tension and heady metaphysical insights - on their backs and they carry it to greatness.
Isaac is great as a pioneering tech genius who is as approachable as he is intimidating. He is physically and intellectually imposing, yet he carries himself with a disarmingly casual and informal manner. Gleeson is wonderfully relatable as the everyman - a cubicle dweller plucked from obscurity and brought to the opulent and impressive CEO's compound. If Nathan is the intellect, Ava is the heart, then Caleb is the empathetic humanity of "Ex Machina." He is the audience's proxy in his conversations with Nathan about the ethics of creating artificial intelligence and his examination of what defines "humanity" in his sessions with Ava.
Speaking of Ava - her big-screen realization is mesmerizing. Visually and textually, Ava absolutely borders the realms of machine and human. From certain angles, she has all the forms and nuances of an alluring woman. From other angles, she is unmistakably a machine whose skeletal system is made of bone and exposed midriff unambiguously shows off her mechanical inner workings.
Alicia Vikander deserves special recognition for her performance as Ava. She speaks with a slightly not-of-this-world cadence, yet her words reflect very common, human sentiments. She moves with a rigid grace that is meticulous, alien and oddly seductive. Vikander's take on AI is alienating for all the right reasons - her casual view of Ava's awesome, if scary, potential of her abilities - yet she always remains a smitten/scared/curious character who could easily pass as flesh and blood.
The dynamic of these characters ratchets up the character tension, as Caleb continues his sessions with Ava and his conversations with Nathan. These are engaging interactions that introduce philosophical ideas of what it means to be aware, the nature of evolution and how people relate to each other. Nathan stands-in for the dark side of scientific ethics - where inevitability compels innovators to ask if they can create while ignoring whether they should innovate. Oddly enough, Ava voices some fundamental questions about the nature of humanity - her questions are quite humane and thought-provoking.
If there is any weakness of "Ex Machina," it's purely in the narrative structure - which wobbles a bit in the final act. While the first two acts are an entrancing exploration in provocative ideas, the third act has some forced action that pales in comparison to the character dynamics of the first two-thirds of the movie. Although "Ex Machina" doesn't completely devolve into a monster movie in the final act - it comes pretty close.
Final verdict: This science fiction masterpiece is an absolute must-see film of 2015. Its concept is exhilarating and often poses points-of-view that challenge the characters and commonly held ideas of how we define consciousness. The trio of main actors wonderfully bounce off each other, creating an increasingly tense atmosphere that drives the movie forward. "Ex Machina" will be required viewing when discussing the very best movies of this year.
"Ex Machina" opens in theaters nationwide April 17 and is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence.