Caleb, a gifted programmer at the world's largest Internet company, wins a competition to visit the private mountain retreat of Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the company. Caleb later learns he will have to participate in a strange experiment involving interaction with the world's first genuine artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot girl.
"Are you a good person?"
'Ex Machina' is a fascinating character study / sci-fi thriller about Caleb (Domhanall Gleeson), a computer programmer who wins a competition to spend the week working alongside his company's reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Issac). Caleb's task for the week is to perform a Turing Test on an artificially intelligent being, Ava (Alica Vikander). A test designed to determine whether or not Ava has become sentient. But, over the course of his week with Nathan, Caleb begins to question the true nature of the experiment.
'Ex Machina' is a film best experienced as purely as possible the first time through, yet also one that becomes more clear with each viewing. It is a movie where delving into its meanings and intentions is better served by openly discussing plot points. So, as I've done with movies like 'Gravity', I'm going to write an essay below openly discussing spoilers.
For those who need a spoiler-free review, 'Ex Machina' is one of my favorite cinema-going experiences for this year (along with 'Mad Max: Fury Road' and 'Inside Out'). It takes familiar concepts and themes -- the consequences of building artificial intelligence -- and weaves them into a claustrophobic suspense thriller that questions audience gender and story preconceptions. It's a movie designed to engage emotionally, and then make you think and discuss for long after. I loved every single minute of it and can't wait to see what writer/director Alex Garland does next. This is exceptional filmmaking.
If you have not seen 'Ex Machina' and wish to avoid MAJOR SPOILERS, please skip down to the next section of this review, "The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats".
Artificial Intelligence coming online is typically explored in an apocalyptic setting. 'The Terminator', 'Transcendence', and 'Robopocalypse' (still a novel) come to mind. One day mankind will likely create a machine that thinks freely and learns. A machine that is self-aware. The question then is, what will happen (aka is it scary), and will this new being be HUMAN? Will it feel and, if it does, in what way? A.I. will be a step forward in evolution, one that is equal parts inspiring and terrifying. Thus, A.I. have become a part of doomsday storytelling.
'Ex Machina' takes this broad genre arena and throws out The End of The World consequences in favor of a contained thriller about a love triangle power struggle. What if an A.I. wasn't just able to learn and adjust (and possibly feel), but what if It became She? And then, what happens when you sent a young, single man in to test her?
As the film explores these questions, we begin to realize Caleb isn't actually here to test Ava, but rather Nathan is testing Caleb to see if Caleb will become emotionally connected to (fall in love with) Ava and help her escape.
Caleb -- and the audience experiencing this universe through his eyes -- is quick to figure this all out, particularly after uncovering Nathan's previous experiments. Caleb is equal parts horrified and transfixed to discover Ava is only the latest generation of many. Each of these previous A.I.s attained some semblance of self-awareness, wanted to see the outside world, and eventually lost their minds (if an A.I. can do such a thing) over their imprisonment. It's terrible and tragic to see FEAR in their robotic eyes as they claw their own hands to pieces.
But it's worse than that. The previous generation A.I.s aren't simply Nathan's prisoners, they're all designed to look like models and be sex slaves and servants.
Imagine that. Nathan has cracked open the door to one of the most amazing technologies ever created in the history of mankind. He has, as the movie implies, become God by creating another entity... And he does it to make sex robots.
That's so epically fucked up and weird and creepy and insane...
And fascinating too.
Nathan, for all his megalomania, is just like you and me. He is desperate for a connection with another being. His problem is that he is unable to accept the balance between a Slave/Object that will do whatever he wants, and the consequences of giving another being Life (freedom to choose). Terribly, too many men see women this way.
Enter Caleb. The everyday hero. The good guy. The man who represents the opposite of Nathan's insanity. Who, against his better judgment, becomes emotionally attached to Ava's plight. He decides he must rescue this robotic damsel in distress. He can't let Nathan delete (KILL) her. Even as he can't be sure that Ava's not playing him.
Ava, for her part, has been designed to be everything Caleb wants. Literally. She has been manufactured to evoke sympathy and feelings of sexual arousal. Despite knowing this, Good Guy Caleb still can't help but need to rescue this thing. Because it is a She that needs saving.
Because It is a She destined to be fought over by two different male archetypes.
Of course, Ava IS playing Caleb. That's the final switcheroo, right? Not really a 'Sixth Sense' style shocker of a twist, but more an earned character moment. Still, it's completely unsettling when Ava, after deservedly killing Nathan with the help of another A.I., abandons Caleb locked in the basement of an inescapable house.
Ava leaves Caleb to die without any sense of remorse.
It's here where you see the brilliance of 'Ex Machina'. Where you step back from whether or not Caleb "deserved" to die (doesn't matter). Where you realize the Turing Test wasn't being conducted on Ava or Caleb, but on us.
'Ex Machina' -- along with all sorts of themes, ideas, and questions -- wants to know if we can set aside our preconceived notions of story (Boy rescues Girl from Bad Boy) and feel empathy with a robot. Can we sit back as the credits roll and imagine what it was like to be Ava -- to wake in a world where you are imprisoned and manipulated, and where your only hope of survival is to trick a young man who only cares about you because you were designed to hit all of HIS preconceptions of gender identity. And are we only feeling this way because Ava is shaped like a human female?
I'm still grappling with this movie. What it means to me. To its own world. To other audiences. And that is the mark of great filmmaking.
What about you, Dear Reader? How did 'Ex Machina' make you feel? How do you think you'd feel if Ava wasn't designed as a woman, or if the gender roles had been reversed completely and male robots were imprisoned? Think on it. Hit us up in the forums, and make sure to use the Spoiler Tags to keep the thread fun for those more interested in talking generally, or asking about the video, audio, and special features.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ex Machina' debuts on Blu-ray in North America via Lionsgate Home Entertainment. This package includes one Region A locked BD50 as well as an Ultraviolet redemption code that "may not be valid after 7.14.16". Slipcover collectors should enjoy this one, which uses a matte black finish to make the rest of the artwork pop. Pre-menu trailers include 'Maggie', 'Cut Bank', 'A Most Violent Year', and 'Under the Skin'.
'Ex Machina' comes to life on Blu-ray with a strong, colorful, and theatrically accurate AVC MPEG-4 encode framed in the film's widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
'Ex Machina' is gorgeous and vibrant from beginning to end. I'm raising a pint to cheers director of photography Rob Hardy, director Alex Garland, and the rest of their team, for putting a together a movie specific in its compositions and painterly and dramatic in its lighting. Skin tones are accurate. Detail and resolution are quite strong. Black levels are generally good, though not quite pitch-black. This Blu-ray also accurately recreates the theatrical experience and, despite its digital origins, is quite filmic in its presentation.
My only nitpick -- and this is about scoring for HD Video and not knocking filmmaker intention -- is that the movie is slightly soft, particularly around frame edges (anamorphic lenses would be my guess). This reduces available resolution from time to time but, as I said, adds to the sensation of watching "film."
Overall, 'Ex Machina' looks as great as it did in cinemas, but is just shy of HD perfection.
'Ex Machina' is the first title to feature the new object-based DTS:X surround sound codec. Selecting the DTS:X track on non-DTS:X-capable gear defaults the mix to 7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio. There is also a separate, discrete 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix (for those who don't have 7.1 systems) as well as a DTS:HeadphoneX stereo mix, which can be used to recreate the DTS:X experience using any standard pair of headphones.
We're aiming to get our hands on a DTS:X capable AV Receiver as soon as possible to test out DTS:X, but for now this review covers the 7.1 version only. However, since I'm currently equipped for 7.1.4 -- using a borrowed Onkyo TX-NR3030 -- watching 'Ex Machina' in 7.1 upmixed to 7.1.4 via Dolby Surround is a pretty great experience too.
7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Simply put, 'Ex Machina' offers a tonally moody and riveting aural experience. Yes, it's a dialog driven, low budget thriller, but it's much better than most mixes in this genre. There is nuance, complexity, and clarity at all levels. Time will tell what the full DTS:X experience adds, but everyone with 5.1 and 7.1 setups should enjoy this great sound mix. I don't know if I'd use it for demos, as it's not particularly flashy or aggressive, but it's such an intense sound mix that it adds to the story's sense of rising tension. Dialog is sharp. LFE is omni-present. Sound effects help build a real-sounding world (things like helicopters and waterfalls contrasted with quiet natural environments). All of that is wonderful, but none of it would shine as well as it does without the music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. If you enjoy synth music (or scores), you're going to love the way this sounds. It's propulsive and driving. I only wish there was an isolated music track.
'Ex Machina' includes over two hours of bonus materials divided into three main features:
Through the Looking Glass: Making Ex Machina (HD, 39:59). This documentary cuts between cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It's quite in-depth and informative.
SXSW Q&A with Cast & Crew (HD, 1:00:57). This panel, recorded on March 15, 2015, begins with introducing writer/director Alex Garland, star Oscar Isaac, director of photography Rob Hardy, and composers Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury. It then segues into the film's trailer, followed by the actual interview session, with some scenes cut in for good measure. This is a fantastic and in-depth discussion that will tell you a lot about the filmmakers' intentions.
Behind the Scenes Vignettes (HD, 28:40). Play all, or watch the below-listed chapters individually. I wasn't as big a fan of this feature because it recycles interviews from Through the Looking Glass as well as from within itself.
'Ex Machina' marks the exceptional directing debut of writer Alex Garland. Together, with his talented cast and crew, the filmmakers have created a grounded science fiction thriller designed to unsettle its audiences and make them question their own notions of story and gender and empathy. It's a movie that is as thrilling to watch as it is engaging to discuss.
On Blu-ray, 'Ex Machina' offers a theatrically truthful, but somewhat soft video presentation as well as an excellent surround sound experience, plus two hours of bonus materials. As of this writing, with Amazon's sub-$17 price, I'm tempted to call this a Must Own title, but understand it won't be a movie for everyone. Regardless, this film comes Highly Recommended.