SXSW review: ‘Ex Machina’ is a sharp, thoughtful directorial debut

“Ex machina,” Alex Garland’s directorial début “Ex Machina,” which screened at SXSW Saturday night, is a sleek, good-looking meditation on the nature of artificial intelligence, on what happens when we create robots that can pass for human.

"Ex Machina"
“Ex Machina”

What does that mean for the robot? What does that mean for us? It is a theme explored in film many times before, most famously, perhaps, in “Blade Runner.”

Garland, the writer of such genre cult classics as “28 Days Later,” “Dredd” and “The Beach,” is to be praised for getting right on with it. Within the first minute, we learn that a coder named Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) has won a week at estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of BlueBook, the search engine company for which Caleb works.

Nathan is .0001 percent wealthy, the sort who lives by himself (save for a silent servant named Kyoko) on an enormous wooded estate reachable only by hours in a helicopter.  He is a curt but not unfriendly sort who loves getting drunk, wanders around in gym clothes and never quite lets Caleb forget who is boss; it’s essentially the same sort of semi-jerk Issac played in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

As Nathan  — shows Caleb through the Apple-store clean building, he tells Caleb the young man is here to conduct a Turing test (essentially a test to see if a computer can fool a human into thinking it is also human) on an A.I., a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Some parts of her body are flesh, the rest is clear plastic, a nice visual metaphor for Ava’s semi-human status.

This isn’t a traditional Turing test: Nathan clearly wants Caleb to develop an emotional attachment to Ava, and perhaps the other way round as well.  He observes all of their interactions via CCTV….except when the power blinks off. Then Ava, seemingly on her own and out of nowhere, reveals to Caleb that Nathan might now be all that he seems.

There are a lot of well-worn paths down which “Ex Machina” could go and Garland heads down a few of them. This isn’t a knock, but it is to there isn’t much, thematically, in “Ex Machina” that wasn’t covered in “Blade Runner” or any of Philip K. Dick’s how-do-we-know-we-are-human fictions. (Indeed, “Ex Machina” often feels like an unofficial prequel to “Blade Runner,” a look at the early days of the Nexus 6 series in a lab at the Tyrell Corporation.)

But if you have a weakness for  science-fiction films that, due to budgetary constraints or intentional design, simply declare they are set in the future and let your imagination do the rest, “Ex Machina” is a lovely piece, often a two-hander between Issac and Gleeson or Gleeson and Vikander. The CGI is both kept to a minimum and executed beautifully — Ava, with her part-flesh, part-clear body, is a wonder to behold.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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