‘Ex Machina’ Review: A.I. with Emphasis on the Intelligence

'Ex Machina'

Movie Rating:


Exploring the potential perils of artificial intelligence is sci-fi conceit almost as old as the genre itself. Yet it still seems fruitful for retellings as we inch closer towards that fictional concept becoming a reality. Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is a creepy, clever and terse rendition of the ol’ A.I. chestnut that works really damn well.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as sad and lonely computer programmer Caleb, who wins the nerdy equivalent of the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. He’s been invited to spend some time helping computer genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) work on his latest super secret project. Given that Nathan is a multi-billionaire – having created a web site halfway between Google and Facebook – he lives in an isolated compound in the middle of nowhere so that he can toil away on his big ideas without any intrusion from the outside world.

Nathan’s latest creation is A.I. – more specifically, a see-through android with a beautiful face played by Alicia Vikander. Nathan needs an outside voice to come in and interview his creation, Ava, to determine whether or not she genuinely has a consciousness or is just brilliant software capable of simulating one. From there, things get rather strange. Nathan frequently flies off into alcoholic stupors, while Caleb’s interviews start turning into seduction sessions perpetrated by an android whose creator deliberately gave it sexuality. It’s hard to tell who’s playing whom. As the three-handed game of chess mounts, it’s even harder to sympathize with the humans over the robot.

Garland has cranked out strong sci-fi screenplays for over a decade now, such as ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Dredd’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’. He has a very distinct voice, one that’s cool, detached and intellectual, yet easily seduced by genre thrills. That he transitions well into directing should come as no major surprise given that his voice as writer/producer has grown with each project.

Garland crafts a very rigidly composed and chilly world. The compound set is a claustrophobic nightmare of Ikea/Apple minimalism, and his camera framing only heightens the tension. From the moment the audience enters into the world of the film, the director milks an impending sense of doom for all it’s worth until the movie transforms into a horror romp just in time for the grand finale. However, as stylistically accomplished and carefully paced as ‘Ex Machina’ is at all times, it’s also primarily a film about ideas and characters.

The movie is essentially a three-hander and battle of wits, with Gleeson playing Garland’s typical passive-protagonist-turned-passive-aggressive-antagonist, and Isaac delivering a wildly perverted computer genius psycho who playfully toys with expectations. Both actors are wonderful and their characters complex, but it’s impossible to tear your eyes off Vikander anytime she’s on screen. She plays her android not with any robotic tics, but as an eerily perfected approximation of human behavior. Every move she makes is deliberate, both seducing the audience and the characters around her. The brilliant android design and visual effects make her mechanics visible at all times, yet it’s easy to forget those expensive extras with a performance this strong. Vikander’s Ava is a fascinating character, destined to be remembered as one of the most creepily complex A.I. life forms ever captured on film.

As Garland carefully builds up his game of psychological/technological warfare, he gently seeds in clever themes and ideas. The decision to give the android sexuality not only says a lot about her creator’s twisted mental state, but also presents a compelling argument for the requirement of gender and reproduction in any living being. Elsewhere, Garland mixes in some outlandish yet credible future tech and all sorts of distressing parental/creator parallels.

What initially seems like a big scary robot movie soon transforms into a condemnation of damn dirty humans, and what emerges is a strange sci-fi movie in which the audience is forced to actually root for the A.I. character over the deeply flawed representations of humanity. It’s a nice little thematic magic trick that – when combined with some expert genre manipulation, beautifully simple visual effects and brilliant performances – delivers one of the finest science fiction movies in recent years.


  1. Chris B

    Sounds cool…will check it out on Blu for sure. I did a double take whike reading your review, for a second I thought the line read: “…she plays her android not with any robotic tits…” Lol

    • Chris B

      You got some kind of a grudge? Care to enlighten us on just what your problem is?
      I find it hard to believe the movie purchasing habits of a total stranger can annoy you this much. So let’s hear it, you have the floor:

  2. Thulsadoom

    I was really looking forward to this, but I have a little trepidation now. I’m so sick and tired of ‘humans bad’ scifi movies. It’s so politically correct not to mention easy. Scriptwriters can pretend to be oh-so-clever. The ‘look how clever I am, because I have a cynical view of humanity’ school of script writing…

  3. William Henley

    This trailers for this movie look intriguing, and your review makes me all that more interested. While not something that I would pay $10 for to see in the theater, this is certainly something that I am going to rent when it comes out, and possibly buy.

  4. Bolo

    This looks like another one of those sci-fi movies that starts off smart and then descends into hysterics because it doesn’t know where to go with its ideas. I will check it out eventually and I hope to be proven wrong.

  5. Chris B

    Saw it last night, didn’t like it. Way over-hyped IMHO and the ending left me feeling totally ripped off.

    • EM

      Hype can be a problem. I saw Ex Machina at a sneak preview, having little information and having caught not much buzz for the movie, and I enjoyed it. At the time I called it “solid”…which is different from calling it “great”. It’s possible that I would have been somewhat still less laudatory if the preview hadn’t been free; price, like hype, can skew one’s perceptions. 🙂

      • Chris B

        Yeah I don’t really understand all the rave reviews. Not much in the movie seemed particularly original, none of the characters were sympathetic or that likeable even…it just felt really flat to me.

      • Chris B

        It just felt like there was very little pay-off. I was expecting some big revelation or twist, the most we got was the fact that Ava was just using Caleb to escape. There are so many unanswered questions. Did Ava feel any affection for him at all? Did she mean to leave him locked in the lab or was it just a matter of convenience? Why did she stab Nathan? Was it simply so she could escape? Does she hate Nathan? Was it to avenge the abuse of all the previous androids? All three? I could go on and on but you get the idea. Garland could have written the third act so much better, there were a lot of different directions he could have taken, instead the ending just felt so half-baked.

        • SPOILERS!
          I took it as she probably did hate Nathan and he needed to die in order for her to leave. I felt suckered by the ending too, but for me it was a good thing because she had me fooled just like Caleb. It seemed pretty clear to me she was using him after she locked him in. At least she didnt give the “you humans are destroying yourselves, so I’ll do it for you” type speech. One thing I had a problem with also was the outer skin. You would think it was custom made for each model. The way it peels off and on with no seams. That seemed to me like a scientific break through on its own. Another question I had was what happens when her battery runs out? Will she go back to the compound to recharge as well? Little nitpicks aside, I enjoyed it.

          • Chris B

            I just feel like if the big revelation is going to be the fact that Ava was just using Caleb, she should have been more likable throughout the film, so when it was revealed we’d be just as shocked as he supposedly was. As it stands, I didn’t find her all that charming or sympathetic, I also didn’t buy for a minute that she was a robot, her performance was far too much that of a human IMO. Movies are odd, ones you expect to love sometimes wind up dissapointing you the most and in same cases the reverse is true.

            I will say though that Alicia Vikander IS incredibly beautiful, just one more reason to check out The Man From U.N.C.L.E. next month! Lol.

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