I hate to appear unsympathetic to fictional characters, but, at this point in our collective culture, if someone sets out to create a super-intelligent robot with artificial intelligence, they deserve to be murdered. In fact, it’s pretty much par for the course. I rack my brain to think of a single movie from the last 30 years in which someone attempted creating an artificial life form and it ended up anything other than catastrophic.
“Ex Machina” is the latest and laziest attempt at delving into the inner machinations of artificial intelligence. It’s about as underwhelming a movie as I’ve seen all year. It’s a very long, tepid and predictable episode of “Black Mirror.” I had high hopes for the first feature from Alex Garland, who wrote one of my favorite films, “28 Days Later.” But “Ex Machina” feels tired and the execution lacks.
There are a few redeemable qualities that prevent the film from circling the drain. Mostly, it’s somewhat salvaged by the performance of Oscar Isaac (“Finding Llewyn Davis”), who is on the precipice of blowing up with roles in the upcoming “Star Wars” and “X-Men” movies. He plays Nathan, a genius creator that feels like a more hard-partying version of Steve Jobs.
Nathan has isolated himself on an estate that’s far removed from prying eyes. He aims to create the first artificial being that can pass the Turing test, the scientific standard created by Alan Turing to gauge whether or not an artificial life form has consciousness. In order to conduct the test, Nathan brings programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) in from his company to have conversations with his comely robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Ava is an interesting piece of work: a beautiful face on a wire-frame skeleton. Her silicon innards make it very clear she is anything but human. However, the test being conducted isn’t about how she looks; it’s about her underlying personality. Is she capable of feeling, reasoning and emotions, or is it all just an act? There are lofty questions being raised in “Ex Machina,” but all of them are given the same stale answer often seen in high-minded, science-fiction think pieces.
The greatest sin of “Ex Machina” is that it’s boring. There’s only one level to this story, and every single plot twist is so painfully obvious it may well have been penned by M. Night Shyamalan. The score sounds akin to if Herbie Hancock fell asleep on his keyboard. Domhnall Gleeson’s American accent is so forced that his vocal chords could be charged with criminal endangerment. It used to be that a movie like “Ex Machina” could be salvaged because there were so few avenues for a story like this. Not anymore: This is covered territory done better in a hundred other movies and TV shows. Hell, Domhnall Gleeson did a variation on this same theme in an excellent episode of “Black Mirror.” (I’ve name-dropped “Black Mirror” twice. If you’re looking for some really fun science-fiction storytelling, check it out on Netflix.)
What I liked about “Ex Machina” was Oscar Isaac. He’s a very likable actor who brings far more to the role than what is written. Nothing else in the movie is able to match what he put into this woefully underwritten story. There’s a moment about halfway through the movie where his drunken, lascivious inventor breaks into a choreographed dance with his live-in servant. It’s wonderfully manic and crazy, and is the kind of inspired moment this movie needed so much more of. Most of the film feels like a sleight attempt at something weighty. Like the Doctor Seuss version of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
The most painful part of the film is a third act that is badly telegraphed. From the moment I learned of this movie’s existence, I was almost certain I knew where it was going. Ava is a character audiences should sympathize with but won’t. Caleb seems like the kind of chap they should be rooting for but won’t. Nathan’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, but he’s the only interesting character in the entire movie. In a better movie, I would think the muddying of the question, “Who should I be rooting for?” was intentional. In “Ex Machina,” it feels like the product of bad choices—much like the decision of anyone who buys a ticket to sit through this dreck.
Starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Directed by Alex Garland