As Technology Continues to Advance, Can a Human and Robot Ever Connect?


Alicia Vikander as Ava in “Ex Machina”
Alicia Vikander as Ava in “Ex Machina”

One of the powers of science-fiction movies is that they can visualize how far technology can go. These movies predict how we would use it and whether those uses will help us or hurt us.

In director Alex Garland’s sci-fi psychological drama, “Ex Machina,” he focuses on the topic of artificial intelligence and how disturbingly close we might be to having it become part of our reality.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young computer programmer who wins a weeklong trip to the mountain home/research facility of his reclusive boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Nathan reveals to Caleb that he was brought to this home to be a part of an experiment to see if he and Nathan’s humanoid AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), can form an emotional and romantic connection. While their interactions start off innocently enough, Caleb soon learns that there is more to this experiment than Nathan is letting on.

As the protagonist, Domhnall Gleeson instantly strikes you as a loner, which perfectly fits with the middle-of-nowhere location where he spends the whole movie. Gleeson’s character is someone who seems to have a bigger connection to technology than to actual people, and he calls to mind Joaquin Phoenix’s character from the 2013 film “Her.” With Gleeson’s portrayal of Caleb, there are some questions that arise that we have to ask ourselves: Are we supposed to feel sorry for him that he can connect to a robot better than to a person? Or, should we be happy for him that he has found someone that has both human-like and technological qualities that make Ava his ideal mate? These are inquiries that will surely have you change your opinion of his character a few times.

Oscar Isaac provides his role with a mad-scientist quality, but not in the sense of having the disposition of a lunatic. Instead, there’s an eerie calm about him that cloaks the unsettling and obsessive genius behind him. Right from the beginning of the film, you know there’s something off-kilter in his character, and the more we learn about him, the more we begin to question if his contributions to science are helpful or harmful.

Alicia Vikander projects a striking vulnerability and soft-spoken personality as Ava. Being kept behind glass walls, she is like a high-tech zoo animal on display to be studied and tested on, but has human desires glowing in her eyes. Vikander expertly has her vocal intonations and mannerisms teeter on the line between humanlike and robotic, all of which culminates in a haunting performance, especially because of how believably genuine Vikander brings out the “human” side to her character.

With Garland’s screenplay, you eventually start to think that its ending is going to be fairly obvious, but the story changes your expectations entirely for the final 15 minutes.  After your first viewing, you might even want to experience it again to see how the film wasn’t as deceptively simple as you might have thought earlier on when watching it.

Similar to Garland’s screenplay for the 2010 film “Never Let Me Go,” he works with a narrative that places a seemingly impossible romance within the backdrop of a questionable scientific breakthrough. He encourages you to debate the possibility of such a relationship that is depicted in the film and how a humanoid with artificial intelligence would assimilate into today’s society. Given how technologically advanced we are, would it even bother us? Or, would we be troubled by it?

Garland sets the film almost entirely within the walls of Nathan’s research facility, so this helps the viewer in feeling the sensation that Caleb has when being ensnared by this building. We become highly familiar with his surroundings and constantly feel the entrapment and uncertainty that Caleb experiences throughout his stay with Nathan.

For the film’s location, Garland constructs a clever juxtaposition between the technological world of Nathan’s lab with that of the outside world.  Beyond the lab, you have the surrounding natural environment where there isn’t any sign of technology, recalling a world before machines, but then you have the imprisoned Ava, a symbol of how far the world’s technology can advance.

Garland is known best for his screenplays in the sci-fi and horror genres, and in his directorial debut, he displays an ability to blend elements of these two genres and shows that he’s capable of handling these elements as a director every bit as well as he can as a writer. With a small cast and confined setting, Garland employs highly effective use of these components and extracts everything he can from them, making “Ex Machina” a cautionary tale that’s not to be missed.

Final grade: A

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