Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Rated R for Graphic Nudity, Language, Sexual References and Some Violence
What is consciousness? What is the line between machine and something capable of free will? For as long as there have been science fiction stories, questions like these have fascinated science fiction authors and their audiences. Now, celebrated fantasy author Neil Gaiman, in a striking directorial debut, has added his spin to the argument. Gaiman doesn't give a definitive answer, but his questions are presented with style and thought.
Caleb (Gleeson) is a 26 year old coder who is working at the world's largest internet company. He thinks he hit the big time when he gets to spend a week with the reclusive owner, a man named Nathan (Isaac). When he gets there, he finds the real reason for his visit: Nathan has created an AI by the name of Ava (Vikander), and he wants Caleb to test her and see if she has her own conscience. But there are mysterious things going on, specifically the power outages in Nathan's super high-tech house. And there are also signs that Nathan has ulterior motives for bringing Caleb to his house.
What sets this film apart is the fact that Gaiman allows Caleb and Nathan to have frank philosophical discussions about consciousness. Most films, in an attempt to avoid turning off or confusing the audience, shy away from dialogue like this. Not so here. Both characters are smart, and their tete-a-tetes about these ideas are fascinating, and more importantly, easy to follow. It is highly unlikely that anyone will get confused about what they are talking about (the technobabble is a different story, but for the film's purposes it's essentially irrelevant).
"Ex Machina" is a three character show: Caleb, Nathan and Ava. The film is all about them, and they give terrific performances. Domhnall Gleeson is a perfect window for the audience. He's in a constant state of awe, both at being invited to the house of this billionaire genius and interacting with an artificial intelligence. But when he learns that things aren't what they seem, he grows a backbone. Gleeson doesn't miss a beat. Oscar Isaac, another up-and-coming actor, is even better. Nathan is not at all like what would think. He's a cocky young guy in a state of arrested development (not to mention a borderline alcoholic), but very personable. He's also highly intelligent and, perhaps rightly, paranoid about security. Alicia Vikander, who didn't leave much of an impression in "The Seventh Son" (considering the utter lack of quality in that film, it's at least forgivable), is very good as Ava. Sympathetic and alien, the gorgeous Vikander gets the complex role of the robot down pat.
Gaiman keeps things low-key; there's no real action, but that's okay since it's the characters and their situations that are the real draw. This is a thinking person's movie, so if you're looking for action, see "Chappie." Actually, that's a good comparison, since they deal with similar material, albeit in a very different way. "Chappie" was an emotional, action extravaganza while this is a low-key, cerebral drama-thriller.
I have a few complaints, but they're mostly minor. The first half is a little slow going, and the plot isn't immune from holes (even upon cursory glance), and there's one plot point that's confusingly told. Nothing to get worked up about. Of greater concern is the fact that Gaiman keeps the characters at an arm's distance. He's making a highly cerebral film, which is fine, but the lack of emotional connection to the characters limits the effectiveness of the ending, which contains a few great twists. I also wondered why Caleb never asks Ava's opinion on something. Surely that would settle the argument? Not that it matters.