Movie Review – Ex Machina (2015)

Recently I watched the movie Ex Machina, a science-fiction psychological thriller that was released in 2015.  Although this is was produced as an independent film and with a small budget compared to today’s big blockbusters, Ex Machina still packs a major punch.

Directed by Alex GarlandEx Machina stars Domhnall GleesonOscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander as the three main characters in the film.  You may not know their names, but I’m sure you’ll recognize at least two of their faces, especially if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter films as well as the new Star Wars trilogy.

Anyway, Ex Machina focuses on robotics and, more importantly, artificial intelligence.  The main story involves a computer programmer who gets the opportunity of a lifetime to test a robot’s intelligence and see if it really can think like a human being.

Ex Machina (2015) – movie poster

Ex Machina begins with computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an office contest.  He works for the world’s biggest Internet search engine company, Blue Book, and as the contest winner, he gets to spend a week at the luxurious home of the company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

A helicopter flies Caleb deep into the mountains and drops him off in a field of grass.  From there, Caleb hikes into a forest and reaches what looks like a small shack.  The structure is actually a facade for a secure entrance.  Once Caleb proves his identity to the security system (automated, of course), he’s given an access card and allowed to enter the mostly underground compound.  Caleb explores part of the house and finds Nathan finishing a workout.  Nathan is pleased to meet Caleb, and he makes mention that the morning workout helps him recover from his hangover from last night.

Nathan takes Caleb to the room where he’ll be spending the night for the next week.  He talks Caleb into signing a strict non-disclosure agreement before revealing that he’s been working on artificial intelligence.  His latest robot has already passed the Turing test, and he wants Caleb, a programmer who is used to thinking outside the box and developing unique solutions to problems, to administer the final intelligence tests on the robot, determining if it is genuinely capable of rational thought and consciousness.

Inside of the underground compound, the robot is confined to a private apartment with a visiting area separated by heavy glass.  When Caleb goes to meet the robot, he’s surprised that not only is the robot female, but she’s strikingly beautiful as well, despite most of her inner robotics visible through transparent “skin”.  The robot says that her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander).  The two of them have a basic conversation, and it’s clear to Caleb that Ava is highly advanced.

Caleb has a series of meetings with Ava, and he continually grows closer and more romantically attached to the humanoid robot.  Nathan is pleased with Caleb’s progress with analyzing Ava and testing her intelligence.  At one point he takes Caleb to the laboratory where Ava was built.  To help her learn facial gestures, Nathan explains that he basically hacked into all of the cell phones around the world, giving Ava access to the phones’ microphones and cameras so that she could learn speech patterns as well as facial reactions.

Nathan’s compound appears to suffer from occasional power outages that seem to happen at random intervals.  He doesn’t know what’s causing them.  However, when Caleb is having one of his interactions with Ava, another power outage occurs.  While the video cameras are temporarily offline, Ava whispers to Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted, that he’s a liar.  She also admits that she is the one controlling the outages.  During the power outages, all of the building’s doors are locked as a security measure.

The days continue and Caleb grows more uncomfortable with Nathan’s drinking, his ego, and the abusive behavior he shows towards Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), his personal cook and servant.  Kyoko does not speak, but it’s clear that she understands Nathan’s harmful words and actions.

During their conversations, Ava expresses her desire to leave the compound.  She also appears to be concerned as to what will happen to her should she fail the intelligence test that Caleb is administering.  Caleb tells her not to worry about that, but it’s clear that he knows that Ava’s fate is sealed if it’s determined that she needs more programming.  Nathan later confirms that Ava will be upgraded with newer programming, “killing” her current personality in the upgrade process.

One night after Nathan drinks too much alcohol and passes out, Caleb steals Nathan’s access card and logs into Nathan’s computer.  He quickly alters some of Nathan’s computer code, and then he finds video clips of Nathan interacting with previous robots.  Caleb is horrified at how Nathan creates and abuses the robots, and he keeps upgrading to make them more and more realistic.  It happens that all of the robots are female, and it’s implied that they’ve also been sex slaves for his personal amusement.

Caleb is so horrified at all of Nathan’s advances in robotics and intelligence, he takes a razor blade and slices open his arm, convincing himself that he’s really a human being and not an android.

The week is almost over, and Caleb knows that Ava is doomed without his help.  During the next power outage, Caleb tells Ava to the cut power at a precise time the following day.  He’ll make sure that Nathan is drunk, and then he and Ava can escape from the compound.  She agrees to the plan and the power is restored.

However, the next morning, Nathan announces that he has officially stopped drinking.  He tells Caleb that he’s now only drinking bottled water.  Nathan then takes Caleb to his office and shows him a video evidence of him manipulating the scene and playing on Caleb’s emotions.  When he explains his actions, Caleb realizes that instead of winning a contest, he was carefully selected because of his background, and that Ava’s face was designed to be the most appealing to him.  Nathan also explains that Ava was given information on how to play on Caleb’s emotions, gaining his trust and using him as a tool to escape from the compound and gain her freedom.

Caleb feels like a fool about how the robot tricked him and was really testing him instead of him being in control.  Nathan also shows Caleb footage from a battery-operated camera, and he shows him the private conversation of Caleb telling Ava how they’re going to escape.  When Nathan asks Caleb how he plans on opening the doors during the power outage, Caleb informs him that he already altered the code in the security system’s programming.

Sure enough, there’s another power outage in Nathan’s home.  When the power returns and he gains access to his cameras again, Nathan is shocked to see Ava outside of her apartment.  He sucker punches Caleb, knocking him out, before grabbing a metal pipe and heading out to find Ava.

In the hallways, Ava begins to explore her new world and realizes what it’s like to now have true freedom.  She encounters Kyoko, who just happens to be standing there and holding a large kitchen knife.  When Nathan appears, Ava ignores his order to return to her room.  Instead, Ava rushes at him and knocks him down.  Nathan uses his pipe to break off one of her arms.  While he’s distracted with Ava, Kyoko stabs him in the back with her knife.  Nathan then attacks and destroys Kyoko.  Ava grabs the knife from Nathan’s back and then fatally stabs him in the chest, ultimately killing him.

Ava then goes to Nathan’s bedroom and finds the previous female androids.  She cannibalizes one of the robots, stealing her arm and most of her skin, making herself look entirely human.  Ava then dresses herself and leaves the room.  Caleb is awake and has been waiting for Ava to return for him.  Instead of leaving with him, Ava locks Caleb inside of Nathan’s office, leaving him permanently locked and trapped inside of the underground home.  She calmly leaves the facility and makes her way outside.  She sees the helicopter that’s meant to pick up Caleb, but she takes the flight home instead of him.

Because of the sheer remoteness of Nathan’s home, and his extremely private and isolated lifestyle, it’s implied that Caleb dies there.  There was no food or water in the room, and last we saw, he was unable to break through the heavy glass door.

Ex Machina ends with Ava arriving in a city and being able to study human beings, just as she told Caleb that she wanted to do.  She looks and acts human, and nobody suspects that she’s a robot.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 2015’s Ex Machina any good?

Absolutely!

This is a fantastic science-fiction film that takes an interesting look at measuring intelligence and determining ways to test a machine’s ability to think.  The story is great, the music is both whimsical and slightly haunting, and the visual effects are quite believable.  All in all, this is a sinister but very enjoyable film.

My favorite part was the first meeting between Caleb and Ava.  Here’s Caleb waiting in a somewhat dark environment, only knowing that he’s about to meet a very advanced robot.  This robot could be anything from a C3-PO look-alike to Johnny 5.  Instead, in walks this slender female robot, shockingly human and realistic in the way that she walks into the room, and overcoming what appears to be shyness and replacing that with her curiosity towards Caleb.  It’s a mesmerizing moment that sets a perfect tone for not only that scene, but for most of the movie as well.

The biggest problem for me was the ending.  If Caleb had allegedly programmed for all of the doors to be unlocked during a power outage, than why was he locked inside of Nathan’s office during the final power outage?  Nathan was dead, and Caleb could have waited in the hallway for Ava to return.  He knew that time was short and the helicopter was scheduled to arrive soon.  Ava’s betrayal to him was a little bit of a surprise, but Caleb allowed himself to be locked inside of a room, especially when it would have been very easy for him to avoid.

Oh well.

The rest of the film is still rather exceptional.  It’s easy to forgive that sloppy ending when the rest of the movie has enough moments of greatness to easily overwhelm it.

Fans of the psychological aspects of Blade Runner will find themselves right at home with Ex Machina.  Although independent, both of those films compliment each other, and they present very realistic visions of robotics and artificial intelligence in the near future.

Ex Machina (2015) – movie trailer

If you enjoy really good science-fiction as well as some deep psychological discussions about being human, then you cannot go wrong with Ex Machina.  Do not overlook this film or cast it off simply because it was a low-budget film with unrecognizable actors’ names.  This one is definitely worth your time and attention.

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