Ex Machina has so many things in its favor that it's almost a bit unfair. The cast is great in their individual roles (much praise goes to Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan's silent servant, Kyoko), displaying fine chemistry in their various scenes together. The fx are super-fine, backed by some admirable camera work and shot composition – especially on a modest budget of $15M (which is really modest, given CGI costs). And the overall story is fun and smart and immensely applicable to the concerns of this modern age.
And, while I wanted to love EM and give it a glowing review, I just can't do that. For one thing, the screening that I attended placed me next to two drunken idiots who, by the halfway mark, were making loud jokes every 5 seconds. For another, the movie actually fails its sci-fi premise in a way that made it impossible for me to take this film at face value. Until I get to watch it again, I'll never know whether my experience was ruined, my standards are too high, or that no one else noticed the flaws that were so obvious to me.
So my review has to be taken with a grain of salt. I would’ve paid money to see this, given the trailer and the critical buzz, but I got passes to a free screening in one of NYC’s best theaters – and I couldn’t have predicted what would go wrong (haha, scifi irony). As such – sweet f--k, my dedication to fairness is so strong that I am compelled to state things that may undermine me – you should keep in mind that it was nearly-impossible to be pulled into, roughly, 40-60% of the story.
What I mean by “pulled in” is that movies can make you genuinely empathize with the characters, or with whatever they are going through; it’s the difference between smiling at a joke or laughing hard. Just as importantly, you are also more inclined to forgive (or understand) little failures displayed by the movie.
Snowpiercer where the rebellious group of the main players is cut down from roughly 30 people to 5 or 6 folks. It makes no sense in the moment – it’s a true WTF, like when a horror movie heroine goes upstairs instead of outside, or hides by a window instead of against a wall. I forgave Bong Joon-ho’s film that flaw because I could see how that development worked within the story the director was trying to tell. And, if you haven’t thought about things like this much, just know that the choice to ignore that flaw was the difference between, roughly, a C+ grade and an A- grade. I gave Snowpiercer some leeway, and the result was a great cinematic experience.
At the same time, I am nearly-certain that (a) I would have the same issues with Ex Machina that I found, regardless of what happened at my screening, and yet (b) I still think I should see it again - in good conditions - just to be sure of my reaction.
Actually, I'm being pretty diplomatic here. My original subtitle for my review was "You wanna bang her, bro?" With that in mind, just know that story spoilers are present from here on.
The big problem is that once the romance angle starts up, it dominates the story and drives it as far away from the sci-fi principles that should be the real focus of this cool, heady premise. We get maybe two days of Caleb testing Ava and trying to figure out how she works – while also dealing with Nathan’s eccentricities and his disconcerting way of doing business. I think all of this offers richer material than the path that the movie itself chooses to follow.
It would have been lovely if EM had truly dealt with the problems and consequences of developing an artificial intelligence. There are several that come to my mind – I’m not even a computer science person - and I feel that the film abandons all those because it wants to be a sort of three-person two-hander stage play, a thriller about a technological love triangle. I think that it does so to the detriment of any claim that this is really science-fiction.
Can we create new lifeforms that are unique and different and that have the same elements that we say make us better than other animals? Can an artificial creation be equal to a human? Are computer programs and metal parts incapable of having true emotions, or true intelligence? If not, are these just limits on our present knowledge, or a failing of humankind? And, if we can do these things, is it at all a good idea to do so?
But there are ignored sci-fi facets here which I think loom over everything. You see, because of practical concerns – and films ranging from WarGames to Terminator to Robocop – making an intelligent robot offers up a unique conundrum. It’s the sort of thing that would only otherwise occur if we discovered a totally new lifeform that could communicate on a human level. Much as if we encountered aliens with no sign of advanced spaceships, or a hidden group of evolved Neanderthals, we’d have to make sure that these new creatures wouldn’t be harmful to human beings and society in general.
First, we would have to determine whether that creature is actually intelligent. Being unsure of that would make us perform tests on it. Then, until such time as we could be sure that this AI, alien, or new other creature was both genuinely smart and not malevolent, people would have to keep it locked up. Yet imprisoning an intelligent creature – even for that necessary purpose – would constitute kidnapping or false imprisonment if it did prove to be sentient and not dangerous. So we, as a society, would end up having to profusely apologize the minute we figured out that we were dealing with something that merits (at least some degree of) “human” rights.
It would be great to consider the problems this may lead to, and whatever other consequences can be foreseen from inventing AI at all. And these problems only multiply when you give it a body with which it could kill, steal, pass for human, or whatever else. For some reason, though, this “intellectual” and “thoughtful” film doesn’t come anywhere near to actually looking into this issue, much less the many others I mentioned before - which is itself an incomplete list. And that failure is the core of my problem here.
Roughly one-half to two-thirds through EM, Caleb starts hitting up Nathan with a lot of hard questions about the nature of Nathan’s creation. Again, issues about cruelty and kidnapping do not really play into it. Why? Because Nathan sidetracks everything by saying that his robot was built so that (a) they have a (forgive me) warm, wet orifice into which a penis may be inserted, and (b) that the robots are built to process this sensation such that they can experience the equivalent of a sexual orgasm. And all those “what makes a human human” and “can a mechanical being ever be one” questions are never raised again.
Worse still, minutes are then spent showing us what kind of work Nathan has been up to all this time. Much to my surprise, it turns out that the development and testing of this great new technology has been to make robots that Nathan can f—k... The AI “angle” is not developed one iota beyond that point.
Really, two of the big issues at the heart of humans making a sentient computer is why should we make one, and what would we use them for? But Nathan, the mastermind of this project, not once in the movie revels in the possible uses of this. God, he doesn’t even say that he’s building one just to prove it can be done. Nathan makes multi-ethnic f--kbots. He appreciates different body types, but (I noticed) they all have the landing strip style of hair down there. That’s awesome, writer-director Alex Garland; I loved Dredd, but that’s as much a heady sci-fi venture as this is.
This conversation is close, but that's as far as EM's sci-fi ideology gets.
Ex Machina even misses the chance to really throw us into three perspectives here. The machine (Ava) is meant to be totally obscured from us, the audience surrogate (Caleb) is an unknown element but reveals himself to us as he goes along, while the third role (Nathan) is intended to be hard to get a handle on, as well as possibly deceptive.
Since the lead is written so that he develops a one track mind once affection is on the table, and since the only other human seems to be fixated on building something to f--k, most of the intellectual possibilities of this story are casually tossed into the trash bin. And while it's true that part of true science fiction is exploring what happens to people when fantastical technology is at hand, it only explores that briefly, leaving all other possibilities on the table. That's a big damn shame.
If you only look to The Machine, you have people grappling with the whys of their technology, with its uses, and how it may be abused. Caity Lotz’ Ava is trying to beat the Turing Test in the hopes of pushing computer technology forward. There’s a genuine sense of the possibilities and uncertainties of a computer becoming sentient in tM, something that the players therein truly grapple with. Hell, I can only assume that there’s more a sense of an intellectual debate seen in a third movie that uses this baseline concept as well as nearly the same appellation – the Spanish film, Eva (no, seriously, what is it with that name, aside from the Bible?), wherein a robot programmer is tasked with creating a life-like child robot.
There are a few more sticking points: in The Machine, the project is intended to ultimately produce a smart soldier that can fight, negotiate, or blend in as needed. So why does Nathan design robotic bodies that are super-strong? If he’s just using them to get off, they don’t need to be able to use a knife or scratch incredibly-tough Lexan, do they? Can they give a better handj-b if they’re really strong?
Even the “I hacked all the world’s webcams” thing is bullshit. It would take years for a powerful computer to process the data from every cell and laptop/desktop camera in the world, and it would definitely take more years to go through each one and determine who is lying, who is being manipulative, the different ways that even one emotion can express itself. This robot wouldn’t need to be a living lie detector to pass for a person, and Nathan would be, like, 75 before all the various disciplines of research and production were completed. What would be next, inventing a young d--k with which his old body could f--k robots?
Finally, it sounds like no thought was put into the practicalities of what Nathan has done. Just think about it: creating an AI would take years by itself – we still aren’t there yet. Making a robotic body? Also, years. Something like synthetic flesh for them to wear? Probably a decade or more. For Nathan to have all this put together at the same time and be capable of producing multiple copies is so crazy that he might as well have transporters and FTL travel.
And yet Alex Garland’s low-budget picture still has gorgeous effects that are as impressive as anything I’ve seen before. I liked the actors, and how they portrayed their respective roles. There is in fact a lot of smart writing here, but it’s seen in some of the character interactions, and small details like calling Nathan’s company “Blue Book,” which is America’s #1 guide to valuing old cars.
EM also features the best dance sequence in all of film history (spoilers in that vid), for which I will always give it great credit. But if you want to talk about science fiction, and especially smart sci-fi, I cannot recommend this movie on that front. Ex Machina is a great thriller about two men fighting over a woman, almost In The Company of Men-style. New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis may have put it most succinctly, stating that it's "a smart, sleek movie about men and the machines they make," although she clearly enjoyed the picture much more than I did.