Amid all the bombast of superhero blockbusters and science fiction franchises starting with “Star”, it hasn’t been easy for thoughtful science fiction and fantasy to leave a mark in recent years. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been efforts. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was as fascinating and ambitious as it was flawed, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is hopefully going to remind us why District 9 was great and why we should all try to forget about Elysium.
In the meantime, we have Ex Machina, the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland, and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as thought-provoking and unsettling a work as you might expect from the writer of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine.
Some spoilers below, inevitably, but mostly I’m going to be ruminating on themes.
The opening scene of Ex Machina sets up the rest of the film with such narrative efficiency that I actually laughed. For a film with so much silence, there are no wasted moments. Everything is pregnant with meaning, everything has been considered, and nothing is there by mistake. There are layers in this film. Yet for all that, it isn’t ponderous. In fact, it’s one of the tensest films I’ve ever seen.*
That tension revolves around the uncertainty at the film’s heart. Domhnall Gleeson’s character is brought to a wilderness hideaway by a Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Elon Musk-type figure (Oscar Isaac, who, like Gleeson, seems to be in everything these days) who wants him to run a Turing Test on an AI. Yet as the film progresses, the motives of each of the characters are increasingly called into question. The initial premise of the Turing Test—rather than intelligence, what it actually measures is the ability to fake intelligence—is swiftly undercut, only to circle back around as the tension ramps up and some of those layers are peeled back. As I said, nothing here is wasted, and everything is considered from multiple angles.
Because this AI isn’t a disembodied presence like Hal from 2001. It’s arrestingly human, in the form of Alicia Vikander’s Ava, whose vulnerability and sexuality are amplified and confused by the fact that she’s kept prisoner in a manner not unlike that of Hannibal Lecter. As audiences, we’ve been primed by fiction to mistrust inhuman intelligences, and if Isaac’s response to Gleeson’s question about why he gave Ava sexuality seems evasive, well that’s not without meaning either.
For dig down through the layers of human fear, wonder and inventiveness and you’ll find an unspoken, yet obvious and all-too timely theme: the need of some men, and especially some men in the field of technology, to have power over women, and their fear of what might happen if that power were to shatter. In the age of GamerGate and some of the appalling misogyny that Internet anonymity permits, Ex Machina takes a look at men who see women as object and men who see them as victims and finds them both wanting.
To go further into that theme might be to risk even greater spoilers, so I won’t. Instead I’ll just note that when my friends and I came out of the cinema, we were discussing the story and its implications in a way we hadn’t in a long time. The conversation about whether or not the film was any good was over within a few words. The dissection of its few weaknesses took no more than a sentence or two. The consideration of its implications and of Garland’s deft interweaving of character, plot and theme was still going on when we had to part company on our respective ways home.
I mentioned in my review of Interstellar that I didn’t think that it was going to be a classic. I also mentioned Moon as my high water mark of science fiction in recent years. Well, I don’t know if Ex Machina will be a cinematic classic to stand the test of time, but I’d bet money on it if offered decent odds. And Moon now has company in my collection of cinematic science fiction measuring sticks.
*I’ve loved Garland as a writer for years, and this film makes me want to strap Damon Lindelof and his ilk down in front of it and make them watch it on repeat until everything it does is understood.