Ava in Ex Machina
Ava, the robot featured in Ex Machina

I had the chance to see the new movie Ex Machina (pronounced: Ex Ma-Khi-na) in a sort of “boutique” theater, the ArcLight Theater in Bethesda.  The ArcLight presents a more upscale theater-going experience, which turned out to be perfect for Ex Machina, as it’s an upscale telling of the “humans vs A.I.” theme that is usually represented (crudely) by the Terminator franchise, (genocidally) by Galactica or (lightly) by Star Trek.

And for “upscale,” how did it do?  Masterfully.  Overall, a five-star experience—if you’re okay with science fiction movies that don’t feature space ships and ‘splosions and ask you to use more than five brain cells at a time.  (Oh, yeah, there’s a bit of sexual language and nudity, so leave the kids at home.)

Read on; no spoilers ahead.

Caleb and Nathan
Employee Caleb and inventor Nathan

You may have already heard of the movie’s premise: That a brilliant man has invented an artificially-intelligent robot, and he arranges for one of his employees to come to his secluded lab and see if the robot can pass the Turing Test (in which the robot passes if the human tester can’t tell if he is talking to a conscious person or a machine).  Naturally, there’s more to the story than that: The robot, named Ava, does not trust the inventor, Nathan, and urges Caleb not to, either; Caleb comes to suspect that he is being intentionally manipulated by Nathan to develop feelings for Ava; and when Caleb comes to realize that Ava will probably be destroyed at the conclusion of the test, he must decide whether Ava deserves that fate.

The movie mirrors the attitude of Nathan in that A.I., while it will be an incredible achievement, will eventually stand on Mankind’s bones and become the rulers of the planet; and so the usual distrust and paranoia between humans and robots are front and center, as well as the possibility that Caleb and Ava could somehow be the exceptions to the rule, the human and robot that could actually develop a relationship and make coexistence work.

Ex Machina excels in a number of areas: The atmosphere is rather oppressive and paranoid, fitting in well with the idea of being trapped in this lab until a resolution to the experiment is found; the cinematography is equally atmospheric and paranoid, often requiring you to search the scene to figure out what you’re seeing, or what you’re supposed to be seeing; the actors do a phenomenal job and are very convincing as humans and as robots, intentionally leaving you guessing at times exactly who is human and who is not; and the effects which create the robot Ava are downright incredible. The story is very intelligent, and doesn’t hit you over the head as it develops.

And the science is all very credible, at no time presenting you with a bit of technology that seems an outright impossibility.  The biggest reach here is the robot’s brain, described by Nathan as some sort of gel that can alter itself to form new thought and memory pathways; but as it’s presented to the audience, it seems easy enough to accept this One Big Lie in order to ride with everything else that’s happening in the story.

Ava and CalebGarland and his crew put a lot of effort into making sure their robot didn’t look like any other robot you’ve seen in television or the movies… and in that task, they nail it.  There was an interesting aspect to the robot effects (in which they replace the actress Alicia Vikander‘s body parts with robotic limbs): When I watched Vikander’s face or hands, I was sure I was watching a person; yet when I looked at her robotic arms, legs, torso or neck, and saw the purely mechanical parts working and moving—and as the minute imperfections of the effects create motions that don’t look entirely natural—I found myself accepting the idea that I was watching a mechanical being, a robot right there in the room with the human actors.  That’s how close they came to bridging the “uncanny valley” of believable robotics… and it makes it that much easier to buy the story’s premise, and Ava’s artificial intelligence.  For movies, the bar for believable robotics has just risen significantly.

Naturally, the conflict in the story comes in the form of misdirection and character flaws.  Part of me wanted to call out the fact that Nathan, a man brilliant enough to create an incredibly sophisticated and realistic robot with artificial intelligence, makes some very stupid assumptions about his control of the experiment, and about Caleb.  But then, on the way home, I was confronted with seemingly intelligent drivers who couldn’t think their way through a four-way traffic stop.  Yeah, sometimes very smart people have intellectual blind spots the size of Texas.  Never mind.

AvaPossibly the biggest blind spot is Ava herself.  Her cleverness is alluded to by Nathan, when he points out that she may actually have feelings… or she might just be pretending to have them.  And until the final act, it is impossible to tell.  This is at the heart of the story, whether Ava is capable of actually developing feelings, or if it is just another illusion, another way to pass the Turing test.

Though the story is intellectual, it’s not so involved as to be incomprehensible.  There aren’t too many twists and turns in this movie, and it’s easy to follow what’s going on.  It’s mostly a quiet movie, which makes its dramatic moments that much more powerful.  As the audience, you will no doubt manage to make a few guesses as to what’s happening before it is revealed to you.  And the ending, while it contains some surprises, works very well and doesn’t leave you feeling like it was forced or contrived in order to satisfy some studio head or test group.  In short, it’s just the ending it ought to be… and it’s a good one.

Though there have been plenty of “robot” movies in the past, there have been very few that actually pushed the envelope and made the audience accept the inherent believability and humanity of the mechanical creatures on screen.  Blade Runner obviously comes to mind as the touchstone of quality and impact that transcends most robot flicks.  Ex Machina is a movie that can stand toe-to-toe with Blade Runner and not be found wanting.

I’ve noticed that, in a lot of venues, Ex Machina is being listed as a thriller… suggesting that it’s perhaps the Psycho of robot movies.  Don’t be fooled: Someone at Universal, the movie’s distributor, just decided that the movie’ll do better in theaters if it’s not marketed as sci-fi.  But this is decidedly not a jump-out-of-your-seat scary picture.  Science fiction this is.  Psychological drama this definitely is.  Some of the smartest science fiction I’ve seen in movies in the last decade or more… hell, yes.