ex machinaOn the surface, Ex Machina is a state of the art meditation on artificial intelligence with a sleek, somewhat sterile, post-modern sense of the brave new digital world that awaits when Google and Apple turn from making phones and watches to manufacturing brains. Pop the hood and take a look inside the film, however, and you’ll see that Ex Machina‘s circuitry dates back to post-World War II science fiction. Underneath its shiny, new skin, this very welcome oasis of calm, adult entertainment is a robot movie. And like all robot movies, the central question is: what does it mean to be human?

Alex Garland, who shook up the world of zombie fans in 2002 with his superlative screenplay for 28 Days Later…, penned this one as well, while also occupying the director’s chair for the first time. His uncredited co-writer, in a theological and thematic sense, is Isaac Asimov. Asimov’s Robot series, at its core, was about humanity; the machines were a mirror that his characters stared into to see a reflection of uncomfortable truths. Garland’s script is unquestionably an original work, but it is certainly truer to Asimov’s legacy than more deliberately derivative films like I, Robot and Automata.

Yet, this simple and transcendent approach, even when done with impeccable production values and praiseworthy acting, yields only a new version of an existing product rather than an exciting new technology. Ex Machina is a fine film, but it stops one gear short of great.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder at Blue Book, the largest search engine company in the world, and the corporation that has enabled Nathan (Oscar Isaac), its founder, to become a fantastically wealthy and extremely reclusive genius with alcoholic tendencies. Caleb wins a lottery at work with a first prize of one week at the boss’s mountain retreat/fortress of solitude, which is filled with security devices, closed circuit TV cameras, IKEA furnishings, and a seemingly endless supply of vodka.

Once there, Caleb discovers that his win in the contest may not have been a matter of chance. In fact, he has been selected by Nathan to serve as the inquisitor in the Turing test (named after Benedict Cumberbatch), which is used to determine if a machine can effectively masquerade as a human. The test subject is Ava (Alicia Vikander), artificial intelligence in a gorgeously modeled synthetic version of the flesh. The rules are clear; the consequences are not. As Ava asks, “What happens if I don’t pass the test?”

Ex Machina is more theater than film in its first and second acts, like a three hander with characters from David Mamet, absent the trademark staccato dialogue. Caleb, Nathan, and Ava have separate, secret agendas. Who wants what from whom looms large, but the existential question of who is the most human of the three threatens to swallow any other consideration. The actors are spot on, and kudos to Garland for not casting “big names.” Watching George Clooney welcome Jesse Eisenberg to inspect Scarlett Johansson would have left this as impactful as an edition of Celebrity Password.

Vikander deserves every superlative thrown her way for a performance that is fundamental to the premise working. She channels the wakening notion of consciousness through tremors of her voice and delicate turns of facial expression to create an unforgettable character. Isaac is sneaky good in his portrayal of the 21st century Dr. Frankenstein. His greatest creation is not Ava so much as his own ego, and his performance is good enough to distract from the utter implausibility of a single individual creating the greatest machine in the history of mankind. Of course, he does have an Igor of sorts – a beautiful mute named Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno) who “elevates” him much the same way Teri Garr did Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

Ex Machina might have been better served with an August release, when many will be searching for relief from the empty noise of the summer blockbuster season. As it stands, the tsunami known as Avengers: Age of Ultron will swamp the Cineplex next weekend in the United States, and the odds of another film centered on the notion of artificial intelligence succeeding simultaneously is small. But there is every reason to believe that audiences will discover Ex Machina eventually and be rewarded for the effort. In the meantime, Garland has scored a significant accomplishment in his directorial debut.

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