The Turing test states that in order for artificial intelligence to be considered “human,” it has to trick someone into believing it is a person. This test is the plot of the film “Ex Machina,” a science fiction mystery that talks a big game but ultimately falls short. Whether it was preoccupied with its pious philosophical touts or just victim to too much style over too little substance, this deceptive movie ultimately fails a cinematic Turing test of sorts: an audience’s suspension of disbelief.
The simple setup sets the stage for some big potential. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a programming contest and is sent to work with technology genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) for a week. Nathan’s secluded estate in the forest mixes stunning scenery with a geometrically designed research facility. It’s just the first bit of evidence that the film is inarguably beautiful, even if the rest of it can’t follow suit.
Nathan has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), a gorgeous robot, who is the film’s second piece of evidence that it is caught up more with looks than with depth. He wants Caleb to partake in a Turing test with her. Although visibly a machine, the divine Ava is to use other means of persuasion to prove her humanity. Be it the light flirting or secrets about the facility, Caleb finds himself torn between right and wrong and who to trust. It’s a clear set up for philosophical debate that “Ex Machina” never follows up on.
Veteran screenwriter Alex Garland, known for “28 Days Later” and “Dredd,” might just be out of his element, as it is his first time directing. The set design and cinematography is done imaginatively and well, but “Ex Machina”’s odd pacing just gets worse and worse as the movie progresses. We get used to the style and start to pay attention to the movie’s shortcomings. The creepy atmosphere that works very well early on never has much payoff, and actually reverts to a deafening background tone that’s more annoying than intellectual.
The three main characters all give bland performances. I can dismiss Vikander, as her character is literally a machine, but some of the lines delivered by Gleeson are more robotic than hers. And as for Isaac’s character, I’m not sure what the film really knew what to do with him as far as his indiscernible characterization goes. We play the Turing test here with “Ex Machina,” in a way, and it’s clear to see how these unreal characters fail it.
Some of the ideas proposed by “Ex Machina” might be interesting to toss around your own peers, but don’t see this movie expecting some deep insights. It’s a feast for the eyes and a mess for the brain. Perhaps all the deceptive twists and turns left Garland himself unsure about where to take the movie. In the end, he plays his self-righteous movie safe and delivers us nothing we haven’t already seen.
MOVE gives “Ex Machina” two out of four stars.