Ex Machina (2015) (R)

Robot movies inhabit a bizarre sub-genre of science fiction movies. Sure, artificial intelligence has been around for a long time in literature and television; but these films that surround A.I. often try to make some bold statement about humanity and sentience. "Ex Machina" is one such movie and it follows in the vein of "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" and "I, Robot"; but I'm not sure that it really brings anything drastically new to the sub-genre it so desperately clings to.
Ever since HAL, there has been the desire to make robots in film better than the single, red light unblinking on the dashboard of a spaceship. HAL's presence in "2001" was immeasurable even though it is only a light and a voice. Compared with that, the accomplishment of Alex Garland pales; but no one is saying he's the next Kubrick...or they better not be.
"Ex Machina" is the debut directorial movie from Garland and it reeks of "debut-ness" if I can make such a word. It's ballsy, beautiful, and not entirely thought through. The plot suffers from simple holes that could have been easily filled, the logic behind the movie is close to non-existent, and it never makes you gasp even though it leads you up to that point many, many times. In short, it's just a lightning's strike away from being genius and it falls short by so close a margin.
The movie begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) literally winning the lottery. He works at Google, oh, I'm sorry, Bluebooks, the biggest search engine company in the world. This lottery concerned involves a trip to go meet the creator of Google—dammit!—Bluebooks. So he packs up his bags and goes to where the lush forest meets the icy tundra (seriously, no idea where this guy is) and he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), the bro-iest software engineer and code writer you will ever meet. This hermit of sorts lives in his billion dollar mansion and drinks himself into stupors like every hour is happy hour. Then he works out like crazy, pumping iron and boxing, We rarely see Nathan dressed in anything other than sweats and an undershirt; but when you're a genius who lives by themselves, I guess it's alright to be a little slack in the fashion department.
Upon meeting Caleb, Nathan lets him know that he's got a big secret; but shh, don't tell anyone. This magnificent creation is no surprise to the viewer since, uh, it's in the name of the movie and on all the posters. Unless you wandered in on your way to "Age of Ultron", you probably knew where this one was going. Robots! Ah, yes, that's right.
Nathan has brewed up an artificial intelligence and he wants Caleb to help him test it, give it the ol' Turing test, which is a phrase constantly thrown around in the movie. Naturally, Caleb consents and he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander) who is both pretty and a robot...she's a pretty robot.
Then begin the sessions in which Caleb asks her questions and like you might have assumed he starts to form an attachment to the machine, because, well, boobs. Not really, Ava is charming and sweet and her dialogue perfectly walks the tightrope between human and robot.
Yet there's something else afoot in the billionaire's mansion and after mysterious power outages start to trap Caleb in rooms, he finds that Ava is willing to impart a little wisdom: beware!
It's fairly obvious from the start that you should watch "Ex Machina" as a thriller first and a bold, intellectual sci-fi movie second. As a thriller, it works surprisingly well, since you have the perfect setting for suspense. As an innovation, it is less successful.
The actors all perform very well considering that the script they are given is nothing original. The story itself contains no surprises, no real shock, and no gut wrenching violence that was actually needed to make the film enjoyable. "Ex Machina" takes a lot of cues from "Under the Skin" because it's trying to provoke the same thought; but it cannot and, thus, we need blood.
Still, the movie bleeds some, and at times it's almost enough to make us forgive the sins of the lazy writing. Every plot point is steady, every turn is smooth, it's very well-paced and very, very, very safe. What's amazing about this is that, all narrative faults taken into account, it works as a suspense piece.
Garland makes sure to provide commentary about gender and the nature of machines vs humans with how he pairs most every session Caleb has with Ava with a nature shot of the beautiful terrain. "Ex Machina" is ripe for analysis, though I think that venture would be fruitless.
It's a crowd-pleasing movie disguised as an art-house project; but don't hold that against it. It's trying its best and sometimes this makes for wickedly good watching and sometimes it doesn't.
Gleeson is incredibly likable, Isaacs is just douchey enough, and Vikander brings a subtlety to her performance that makes it enjoyable. All-in-all, "Ex Machina" is rock solid entertainment; but not an experience or a revelation. I look forward to seeing what Garland can do next because he has the potential to create a true masterpiece; but this wasn't it.

Score: ★★★

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