‘Ex Machina’ has beautiful visuals and big ideas, but limits itself with story

As I was watching Ex Machina, I wondered why it often seemed as if stories about artificial intelligence (A.I.) went in either one of two directions: 1) The A.I. is going to advance past human intelligence and render us obsolete or 2) The A.I. is going to fill some sort of companionship void, causing a human to fall in love with it.

Thankfully, Alex Garland (Dredd, 28 Days Later) makes his story a bit more complex than that. Ex Machina does address the possibility of going in one of the popular directions typically associated with these types of tales.

There’s no sinister, robots-must-take-over storyline, though that conclusion could be drawn out by the viewer if he or she chooses. (The evil A.I. seeking to wipe out humanity comes next week in Avengers: Age of Ultron.) And the protagonist doesn’t necessarily want to pursue a relationship or have sex with this artificial being, as Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore does with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s Her.

That’s not to say that Caleb (Domnhall Gleason), the young coder brought to the remote Norwegian research facility by genius inventor and CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), doesn’t develop feelings for Ava (Alicia Vikander), the A.I. whom he’s supposed to test for traits of human thought and behavior. It’s certainly a possibility that Caleb does envision being with her, since Ava seems to like him. Nathan frequently points that out, in addition to the fact that she actually has the intellectual — and physical — capability of enjoying something resembling sex.

Yet it’s also plausible that Caleb sympathizes with a being that wants to break free and experience the outside world, rather than continue to be a test subject. Though he and Ava would presumably be together in this scenario, the desire for a companion may not be his chief motivation. You might disagree if you see this movie, and think it’s plainly obvious that Caleb is motivated by running away with a robot girlfriend. The possibility of such differing interpretations is one thing that makes Garland’s story so compelling.

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But this is where Ex Machina gets intriguing and twisty, maybe a little too much so.

Was this entire scenario really initiated by something as seemingly innocent as Caleb really win a lottery within his company — the Google-esque Blue Book — and the CEO wanting to share his life-changing innovation with someone who would truly appreciate it? Does Nathan simply just want to know how true-to-life his creation is? By making his A.I. female and giving it physical form, was he deliberately trying to create something that a man could fall in love with?

Then there’s Ava herself. (Itself?) Is she just a passive player in this story or does her intelligence come with concepts, motivations and tactics associated with human nature? Is she pretending to like Caleb, as he suspects at one point? Or has she developed an affinity for him, if for no other reason than he’s the first person she’s met, other than her creator, who naturally has to take more of a paternal and authoritative role? Are such things even possible for an artificial intelligence? And if so, is that where an A.I. becomes something sentient, its own independent being?

Those are some pretty big ideas, and I’m not certain Garland explores them satisfactorily in this movie. But that might not be the fault of his writing and directing, so much as the outlet he chose for this story. Garland initially made his name as a novelist with The Beach (and later, The Tesseract) before devoting himself to films. He’s said in interviews that he prefers writing for film (largely because of its collaborative process), but I wonder if Ex Machina would have been a better novel because of the big ideas it addresses, but doesn’t really explore.

Additionally, I felt like this story might have been even more compelling as a character study. Perhaps it’s better as a viewer to be left wanting more out of a movie sometimes, meaning that the filmmakers created rich, complex people. Maybe a story focusing more on Nathan ultimately wouldn’t have been that intriguing since he’s a largely unlikable character (though a fabulous dancer). But throughout the film, I kept feeling like I wanted to know more about this guy.

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Does Nathan create an artificial intelligence because he really has no tolerance for people, and would prefer instead to just create adulators and servants to surround himself with? Though this tech innovator has presumably exiled himself to Norway for security reasons (and perhaps the beauty of its environment), it seems likely that he just doesn’t play well with others. He has no tolerance for those not as smart as he is, who don’t view the world the same way.

Or is that seeming intolerance and impatience borne from insecurity? We frequently see Nathan working out, boxing with a heavy bag or lifting weights. Is this because he’s vain? Because he believes that he has to keep his body sharp, in addition to his mind? Does he want to be formidable in case he needs to defend himself against anyone trying to steal his secrets? Maybe it’s something of a pose to intimidate Caleb too.

Very early on, Nathan swells with pride when Caleb tells him that cracking the code on A.I. would make him a god. Clearly, he loves being put in that category. But does he have a blind spot when it comes to the realization that creating intelligent beings will eventually lead to them seeking independence, to break free from their creator? Does he not consider that these inventions won’t worship him or do exactly as he says, but will eventually realize that he’s a mean-spirited, control freak asshole?

By the way, dude, why are all of your A.I. creations women? And not just women, but idealized fantasies seemingly created to indulge your fetishes? I kept wanting Caleb to ask those questions to Nathan. Is that yet another way in which he allows his human impulses and urges to limit the possibilities of his innovation? Is this a statement by Garland, that men are men and if they have the opportunity to create a form of life, they’ll just attempt to create their idea of the perfect mate?

However, maybe the movie as it is really provides all we need to know about Nathan and its other characters, because they’re ultimately there to serve the story. But what if the story isn’t quite as interesting as the concept? What if the ideas posed by a movie (including how much of ourselves we put online through social media and search) are more intriguing than what turns out to be a relatively conventional narrative? I felt like the movie ended exactly how it had to, though with a bit of a twist that wasn’t entirely expected.

Ex Machina might just be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. (Though, to be honest, I haven’t seen many yet.) The visual effects are understated, yet spectacular. I enjoyed having so many itches in my brain scratched, and may end up thinking about this film more after the fact than with any other movie I might see from now through next January. But part of that will be thinking about what else — what more — it could have been, so I can’t help but feel just a little bit disappointed.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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