Monday, 26 January 2015

Ex Machina (4½ Stars)

I don't usually read reviews of a film before I go to see it in the cinema. In this case I made an exception, because a review's catchy title caught my eye: "Foxcatcher for nerds". I shan't explain why, because it would give away too many spoilers for both films, but it's a perfect summary. "Foxcatcher" and "Ex Machina" have similar plots and end in a similar way. The main difference for me is that I found "Foxcatcher" dull, whereas "Ex Machina" was fascinating and exciting from the first minute.

Caleb Smith is a 26-year-old programmer for the company that makes the world's leading search engine. He wins a competition that entitles him to stay a week in the remote house of the company owner, Nathan Bateman. When he arrives he finds out that it isn't a vacation, he has a job to do. His boss, who insists on being called by his first name, has built a machine with Artificial Intelligence. In a variation of the Turing Test, Caleb has to talk to the machine for a week, knowing it is a machine, and then decide if he can treat it like a human. The machine, called Ava, has the voice and face of a woman, and even has the personality of a woman. Caleb is at first uneasy when Ava begins to flirt with him, but as the week progresses he accepts it. How far is he willing to let it go? He's aware that Nathan is always watching him with Ava. Is Nathan an all-seeing God or a creepy voyeur?

The film is slow-moving, but never boring. I was always excited to see what would happen next. The excellent acting by the three main characters makes the film even more entralling. Oscar Isaac (Nathan) is unsettlingly cold, Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) is young and naive, and Alicia Vikander (Ava) has a child-life innocence. In some of the early scenes people in the cinema were laughing, but it wasn't because of any humour. It was the awkward laughter that people do when they feel uncomfortable in a situation and want to cover up their embarrassment. The film touched me, and it evidently touched the others in the cinema. A film that deals with similar issues, though from a different angle, is "Her". It would be interesting to watch them back to back.

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