In an age where smartphones can talk back, organs can be synthetically printed, and the internet has become an almost fundamental element of modern humanity, it feels as if the gap between true artificial intelligence and consciousness is becoming smaller by the day. It’s in this environment that I’ve become fascinated by narratives exploring not just the plausibility of a fully sentient AI, but the ethical and moral implications there in; stories which question the basis by which we define ourselves as alive and human, and at which point our creations are no longer ours to control. Within this context, Ex Machina exists as Hollywood’s latest critically beloved entry into the transhumanistic, and in lieu of such an honor fulfills its part as a film which is equal parts eloquently constructed and wholly unsurprising.
Ex Machina’s strongest element is its immaculate restraint. From the moment Caleb Smith – programmer extraordinaire and winner of a search engine competition – is set down seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Ex Machina resigns itself to the meticulously small and personal. We are introduced to Ava, an AI marvel for whom Caleb has unknowingly been selected to be the human portion in a Turing Test. She is kept in a tiny room, in a mansion for one, with no purpose other than to exist as a scientific breakthrough. The only sensible path then, is to escape.
To Ex Machina’s credit it rarely extends itself beyond its immediate aspirations. The script is tight and hyper focused, asking the right questions and the right times, providing depth to its cast of three, and giving you just enough to think about that you feel stimulated and engaged. What it doesn’t do is attempt to dramatically challenge the viewer, neither in their perception of humanity in relation to AI, nor even their basic expectations for what can and cannot be said within this established narrative.
Ex Machina is a very slick and well-orchestrated demonstration of what we have already seen from this style of film. At no point does it attempt to break out of its genre conventions, instead embracing them as comfortable fodder for a visually brilliant but thematically bland consolidation of more interesting works.
Ava is a compelling centerpiece, but rarely is she allowed to show the humanity and understanding we’re meant to believe is her incredible existence. Caleb is sympathetic in his naivety and compassion toward Ava, but also devoid of any defining traits outside of his interactions with her, which border on obsessive. Only Nathan Bateman, creator of Ava and host to Caleb, truly embodies his role as a self-anointed god; narcissistic and dangerous, yet slyly charismatic and endlessly interesting in his efforts to unnerve and impress.
Perhaps most detrimental to Ex Machina’s success is its almost excessive pacing, which succeeds in building an excruciating tension only to have it slip away in a series of increasingly unsatisfying resolutions. The dramatic and entirely expected conclusion is especially subdued, sending the film off quietly with a feeling of exhausted reassignment to an ending that should have been the defining climax to so many slowly escalating encounters.
If Ex Machina was intended as a character study, which to me seems if not the most likely then the most justifiable intention, it succeeds only partially and so thoroughly misdirects the viewer as to disrupt its own objective. As a contemplation on the embed humanity within a true AI, Ex Machina is little more than a reframing of the same concepts and questions which have been intellectually posed before by more thoughtful works (Moon, The Fall, The Talos Principle, etc.). It is neither unwatchable nor entirely worth recommending, being a passable use of time but lacking in meaningful substance or any perceivable goal beyond following a path which has been previously laid out for it.