“Ex Machina” Review: Artificial Intelligence Never Looked So Good, or Meant So Little
You have just designed some primo artificial intelligence, placed it in the body of a sexbot, and now you want someone to give it the Turing test. The Turing test, as many people in this decade’s ongoing Turingaissance already know, is a kind of social sniff-test to see whether a machine can convince a human that it has sentience. What kind of person would you choose to administer this informal test?
A geeky, white, male, twenty-something software genius?
It’s wrong because that guy was already voted Most Likely To Have Sex With A Robot in his high-school yearbook. He’s in the tank for you and your long-lashed toy. He knows the algorithms, but he’s too invested in their success to be objective. He should be monitoring the test, not deciding its outcome. The Turing test requires an outsider, and he’s the very definition of an insider.
To its credit, Ex Machina actually understands this about its protagonist, Caleb. Caleb is played by Domhnall Gleeson, a slight, ginger-haired sort who seems to be using the movie as an audition tape for the role of Martin Freeman. He’s got Freeman’s facial and vocal tics down pat, and nothing of his own gets in the way of the impression. The movie is essentially an erotic thriller, and the nerdy Gleeson is a good choice for the male lead precisely and only because his love interest is a stereotypical computer science major’s stereotypical fantasy: Ava, a socially-inept but book-smart automaton, played exactly as written by Alicia Vikander.
The movie could have had a lot of fun with meta-observations about Caleb’s type of dude, but only once does it get that brutally, and amusingly, specific, for a joke about his internet search habits. It comes far too late, long after the audience has made the joke in their minds. The crowd I watched with audibly and repeatedly predicted dialogue several beats ahead of the actors. The writing is that broad.
Because the movie wastes no time getting to its isolated mountain resort, a bulletproof smart-home worthy of a Bond villain, there are very few principles. Besides Caleb and Ava, there is only billionaire tech magnate Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). If Gleeson is doing Martin Freeman, Isaac is doing Javier Bardem: a reeling and leering bruiser whose moral compass needs recalibration. Kyoko, for her part, is the occasion of the movie’s funniest scene, its boldest visual, and its biggest missed opportunity for greater specificity. The first is when she and Nathan hit the dance floor under a red disco light. The second is an instance of nudity that straddles the line between tasteful and exploitative, but ultimately settles just on the tasteful side in a smart bit of visual work. The third is when Caleb is unable to speak to her in Japanese: geeky, white, male, twenty-something software geniuses always speak a little Japanese in real life.
With so few players, there are only a certain number of possible twists. Two of them happen, and neither are surprising. The final act slows the pace quite dramatically, leaving plenty of time for close observers—and sci-fi audiences are the closest of observers—to notice the plot holes. The A.I. body, for example, has highly variable strength depending on the needs of the story. At times, the body is clearly strong and agile. At others, it literally falls apart at the slightest touch. There’s no built-in reason for that, and it’s so crucial to the climax that the inconsistency is distracting.
But if the movie is successful (and I think it will be) and if it is an important landmark in the portrayal of robotics on screen (and I think, with less certainty, that it is), it is entirely due to Ava’s body. Not the sexuality of Vikander, but the metal and plastic and fiberoptics of her character. Vikander’s face is perfectly integrated onto a mostly-transparent android body. I have not seen a better one in any work of fiction. Equally impressive is the sound of the body: every movement is accompanied by a “whirrrr,” and this makes a neat soundtrack in the same way that the hum of spaceships creates the atmosphere for Star Trek and Star Wars.
Ex Machina isn’t clever enough to be a good thriller, or inventive enough to be a great science fiction story, but A.I. itself has never looked better. The Norwegian landscape and the compound are almost characters in their own right. Caleb and Nathan are dull, but Ava and Kyoko, unmistakably the supporting characters despite Ava’s central importance to the plot, have enough all-around appeal to keep the film watchable and maybe launch a sequel.
Is Ex Machina better than any previous AI films? Forget Turing, let’s put it to a real test: the Flickchart test.
Ex Machina vs. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
A.I. makes Ex Machina look like a work of minimalism. It isn’t quite that, but it certainly makes no attempt to create an all-new world for its machine to inhabit. Ava is the first of her order, whereas Haley Joel Osment’s David is one of many Pinocchio-like artificial boys, forever unchanging in a changeable world. Steven Spielberg’s skills differ greatly from those of Stanley Kubrick, who had wanted to direct A.I., and many find Spielberg’s aesthetic a poor match for the story, but A.I. is substantial enough that it still occasions think-pieces fifteen years after its release. Ex Machina will probably not loom as large, and until it does it must rank below A.I.
Ex Machina vs. Blade Runner
Blade Runner is another movie that works by dint of its world as much as its robots. It is one of the most visually-ambitious sci-fi films of the 1980s, but it does not forget to create strong characters and subtle ideas. It may, in fact, have a surplus of ideas: it pulls in too many different directions, spending too much time here and too little there. But it is a movie that rewards multiple viewings in a way that Ex Machina almost certainly will not. Blade Runner takes top honors.
Ex Machina vs. Her
If the body is the soul of Ex Machina, the voice is the heart of Her. A man falls in love with artificial intelligence sight-unseen, because she has no physical existence. This matchup is thematically appropriate, but the Oscars won’t be nominating an erotic thriller for its top award, nor should they. Her wins out for taking its ideas more seriously.
Are you ranking Ex Machina above any prestigious robot movies?