Movie Review | Ex Machina
Movie summary: A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I. (IMDb)
I had meant to watch Ex Machina for years, but for some reason had never got around to it, despite it being well known as an excellent science-fiction dealing with ethical issues around artificial intelligence, which is a subject I like a lot - hence my interest in, and love for, the Blade Runner movies and Detroit: Become Human on PlayStation 4.
I'm also a huge fan of Alicia Vikander, who is excellent in the central role of Ava, the AI facing a new type of Turing Test to see if she can convince a human being that she is a living entity capable of self-awareness and her own thoughts and not a machine simply programmed to respond in any number of different ways to a given situation.
Oscar Isaac is Ava's creator, Nathan, a tech genius who lives in complete isolation and who we come to see is not the most stable person in the world, with odd eccentricities and a hyper-intelligent mind proving to be a volatile mixture. Much like Ava, he is presenting a certain image that those in the audience and in-movie have to decide for themselves whether to believe or not.
In-movie, this falls to Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb, a programmer selected 'randomly' by Nathan to be the perfect test partner for Ava, with Nathan knowing just about everything there is about his employee to ensure the most genuine response to his altered test. Unfortunately for both of the men, he was a little too well-suited for someone to deal with Ava and she certainly takes advantage of the power he unwittingly concedes to her.
A key part of what brings everything crashing down is the setting of Nathan's isolated home, a long helicopter ride followed by a hike away from civilisation. There are no genuine second opinions with everyone second-guessing everyone else and only having their own pre-existing biases and tendencies to guide their behaviour towards their ultimate fates.
It's impressive writing and directing from Alex Garland to keep the balance of power shifting throughout, from one character to the next, before everything breaks down. The order of control over the situation appears to change from one scene to the next, keeping you wondering exactly how it will all end, only to realise that one person had been in control of events all along, guiding everything to achieve their aims.
Ex Machina never seems to have a dull moment as a result, because you're always keen to see just what will happen next, not just from the anticipation of seeing where the story leads, but how much context and clarification it can give to what you've already seen. I really want to watch this again and soon - I'm pretty damn confident that knowing how it all ends will make me view events very differently.
The only real issue I have is something that is common in a lot of mainstream (read 'male-created') science-fiction, and that is the treatment of women here. This is a partial spoiler, but all of the AIs built by Nathan are beautiful women and all of them are shown nude at some point or another in the movie, whether it's actually necessary or not.
It makes sense from a character viewpoint, because Nathan doesn't really seem to care about people in general and, taking his mentality as what many would call a 'tech bro', it's no surprise that he would make these AI creations as beautiful women. It's more the gratuitous nature of the nudity that stands out, with multiple beautiful women naked because... actually, there's no because.
This is partly alleviated by the movie engaging in a little body horror thanks to the artificial nature of these women and that machine nature being readily exposed. Then again, there is one scene where Sonoya Mizuno's Kyoko is lying down nude when Caleb enters, exposing her own artificiality by peeling the fake skin from her face. Freaky and certainly enough to remind you that the character isn't actually a human woman, but then I started wondering why she had to be nude for this scene?
What would have changed about this scene if she'd been covered up? Hell, if you wanted to retain the sexual nature of the character (her 'relationship' with Nathan is heavily implied throughout), why not put her in lingerie? Again, it makes sense taking Nathan as their creator/owner, but Ex Machina did feel more than a little objectifying towards the actresses at times.
To counter that and go all the way to the other extreme is to view these scenes in context as part of a feminist tale with women attempting to take their own agency from men. Women are heavily sexualised by society and many are appreciated solely for their looks rather than their character, intelligence or any skills they may possess. We see that, brilliant as he may be intellectually, Nathan isn't above any other men when it comes to women's appearances.
I don't want to get into detailed spoilers, but Ava's story really is about a woman having to prove herself to two men treating her like she is less than them (to varying degrees) and her taking the opportunity to prove that she is perfectly capable of her own existence free of them and doesn't need any man to determine that she is an individual capable of thinking for herself and definitely not in need of their approval or consent before acting.
There is a lot to like about Ex Machina, although the prolific use of female nudity may put off some thanks to how unnecessary it can come across. The rest of the movie is excellent though, with brilliant performances from the central trio in a location that could easily make this story one performed on a stage as on-screen. I would also genuinely recommend watching the movie at least twice, as I think a second viewing can re-contextualise everything you see the first time.
Ex Machina is a brilliant, claustrophobic thriller that covers a wide enough range of subject matter to satisfy almost everyone, from feminism to body horror - and all delivered through the lens of probing science fiction dealing with issues that we are rapidly closing in on having to deal with ourselves. Only some gratuitous female nudity for no apparent crucial purpose other than to serve the male gaze stops it from being just about perfect.