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Universal Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Ex Machina (2015)

When young computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to visit the secluded home of solitary tech entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac), head of the search engine company Bluebook, it seems like a dream come true for the star-struck employee. Caleb arrives at Nathan’s hideaway home and discovers the reason for the competition, a chance to meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android created by Nathan.

Caleb is tasked with questioning Ava to try and prove the Turing test — that is, to establish that Ava is a living being rather than artificial intelligence. Caleb approaches the assignment logically at first, but is pressured by Nathan into assessing Ava with his instincts more than his intellect. Caleb is increasingly captivated by Ava, but is also unnerved by the situation when it seems there is more to Nathan than meets the eye.

On film, Alex Garland is chiefly known for his screenwriting duties on “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd,” giving him a thorough cinematic science-fiction and horror background for his feature debut. His works sit at the bleaker end of the sci-fi spectrum, where scientific progress imprisons and dehumanizes people as much as it liberates them and expands their potential. The world of “Ex Machina” continues in this vein, being analogous to present day apprehension about where AI technology is heading and what this means for the future of humanity.

In the film’s depiction of Ava, “Ex Machina” is also similar to “Her” and “Under the Skin,” recent science-fiction films that showed females as unknowable, alien presences. There are also echoes of films like “Species” and “Splice,” where scientific investigation was mixed with sexual awakening, creating unpredictable results. All these films all show men fearful of women and technology, but also in awe of both. “Ex Machina” is also a film about men’s treatment of women, initially shown in Caleb’s earnest interactions with Ava and in Nathan’s dismissive attitude towards his housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), with both men’s thoughts and feelings on women developed throughout the film.

The conversations between Caleb and Ava take place in an underground facility where they are separated by transparent walls, echoing the interrogation scenes in “The Silence of the Lambs” — an apt comparison, as there is something unsettling about the subterranean hideaway and these superficially innocent exchanges. At first, the proliferation of glass and mirrors appear to show everything, opening up the spaces in Nathan’s complex; but as the film progresses, these reflective surfaces become barriers, restricting characters’ movements and creating a sense of unease. What seems to be an open, transparent environment is, in fact, claustrophobic and impenetrable.

Ms. Vikander’s understated performance captures the inscrutable nature of Ava perfectly, hinting at emotional connection to Caleb but also subtly revealing a penetrating look that can determine whether or not he is lying to her. Messrs. Issac and Gleeson represent alpha and beta males respectively: the former playing Nathan as gregarious but intimidating, seen in his bulked up physique and blunt demeanor; while the latter plays Caleb as quiet and nervous, displaying a youthful curiosity and naivety.

As much as “Ex Machina” is about humanity’s trepidation concerning artificial intelligence, it is also a troubling look at human intelligence: about why we create these technological wonders and what these creations — and our uses and treatment of these inventions — says about us. While the technological advances on display are wondrous, the film is perhaps less about humans determining if artificial intelligence can convincingly be human and more about what this type of technology may reveal about human nature.

EX MACHINA

Opens on Jan. 23 in Britain and on April 10 in United States

Written and directed by Alex Garland; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Mark Day; music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow; production design by Mark Digby; costumes by Sammy Sheldon Differ; produced by Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich; released by Universal Pictures (Britain) and A24 (United States). Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Oscar Isaac (Nathan) and Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko).

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