Ex Machina

Art & Culture

I'm not a fan of science fiction, especially when it is swamped in special effects, space chases, and silly looking creatures with annoying names (yes, Star Wars). So I'm thrilled to have enjoyed this low key and unflashy film which – although it deals with AI (Artificial Intelligence) is essentially a three-hander about relationships between people (though one of them is less than human).

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a not-very-mature 26 year old IT guy working for a huge search engine company called Blue Book. He wins a competition to spend a week with the company's reclusive founder and CEO called Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan lives – literally – in the middle of nowhere, in a green valley next to snowy mountains. His hi-tech home is impenetrable to the outside world, because he is developing a new craeture – resembling (in some respects) a human, but entirely manmade. Ava (Alicia Vikander) has a face, a bust and a bottom which make her look like a person, but everything else is clearly artificial.

She is charming, intelligent, friendly, and when Nathan isn't listening she pleads with Caleb for help to escape from her oppressive master. The plot is simple enough, or at least we are fairly clear about the motives of two of the protagonists. Caleb is out of his depth. He is young, easily impressed and susceptible to Ava's appeal (in this way, he's very like Joaquin Phoenix's character in Her, in relation to Siri). Nathan, meanwhile, is obviously a manipulative bastard, who cannot be trusted an inch. He pretends he just wants to be buddies with Caleb, but no one believes that. He keeps a servant who he swears at when she makes a mistake, but who he also seems to have sex with, and disco dance with. 

The unknown quantity is Ava. What is she up to? Is she all that she seems to be, or more, or less? Well anyone who has watched movies knows that she can't be the way she presents herself. Or can she? That's what keeps us guessing. We are in the same quandary as Caleb unsure who to trust and for how long. We are also caught up in the fascination of seeing the outcome of a Frankenstein-like process unfolding in front of our eyes. Essentially, though, this is a relationship movie (hooray). There is an unbalanced power relationship between Nathan and Caleb, with elements of doubt about what each knows about the other. There is the emerging relationship between Ava and Caleb, which elicits conventional responses from an audience used to a boy-meets-girl narrative. But when the girl is not really a girl, what does that mean? 

I enjoyed the film, even a slightly improbable ending, which is (if I'm fair) no worse than any of the possible alternatives. All three leading actors do an excellent job. Go and see it, if you like intelligent scifi.


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