Moving on up the evolutionary ladder

“Ex Machina” dares to question the definitions of “gods” and “robots”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Alicia Vikander as Ava in “Ex Machina”; Rating: R, Grade: A

As the summer movie season approaches, I am heartened by the notion that 2015 will stand out as the year that the independent filmmaking model lives up to its billing as a smart and sexy alternative to the studio machine. What that bold claim means specifically is that the indie film world has finally embraced its potential to play in the genre sandbox and build intricate (and nuanced) castles that can and should compete with the big CGI dream factory output.

For all the success to be found under the Blumhouse Production banner (along with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes label and Rob Zombie’s intriguing forays), I’m far more jazzed by the old school thrills to be had in “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” than the stale “I Know What You Did Last Summer” social media gone bad shenanigans in “Unfriended.” And the latest genre ripe for re-imagining seems to be science fiction, which offers far more upfront potential. It doesn’t take much of a paradigm shift to distance yourself from the glitzy crystal-clear perfection of computer-generated images to the largely untapped possibilities in a more speculative framework. We’ve already seen the somewhat more conventional likes of “I, Origins” on one hand contrasted with the surreal biological frenzy of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” The middle ground between those extremes is wide open and intriguingly fertile.

Enter Alex Garland (writer-producer of the films “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine” and author of “The Beach” and “The Tesseract”) – with his latest “Ex Machina,” emerging onto the scene with a feature-directing debut that quietly enthralls. The film, thanks to an ingenious premise, speaks to the astronomically escalating advances of technology and its impact on our understanding of what it means to be human, in a future that doesn’t seem that far removed from the present.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy programmer working anonymously within the confines of a giant corporation dedicated to being the best search engine on the planet, wins the career opportunity lottery – a chance to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company’s reclusive founder and test the latest ground-breaking project burped out of the genius’s mysterious mind. Caleb imagines himself to be a smart enough fellow, but he knows he’s nothing next to Nathan. The thing is Nathan already has a rather high opinion of himself, especially now that he believes he’s close to perfecting a robot with artificial intelligence on the border of a human’s responsive capabilities.

He wants Caleb to test his prototype, named Ava (Alicia Vikander), to see if he has indeed created life and it becomes clear that whether or not Caleb and/or Nathan believe the claim, Ava soon begins to, which sets up the dueling dynamic of man’s attempts to usurp God alongside a robot’s efforts to stake his/her case for humanity, which boils down to a fight to retain life, despite the wishes and/or intentions of the creator. This is stuff right out of “The Matrix” (in particular, “The Animatrix,” the anime series of shorts based on a more expansive investigation into the history of the battle between men and machines) and more than a few trace elements of the issues floating under the surface of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” but the war here, no less epic, mind you, is writ small. It is an interpersonal skirmish laden with emotional baggage and philosophical abstractions.

The point, as stated early on, is to test for signs of humanity in the AI (artificial intelligence), but the microscope, as always, is firmly trained on the humans, seemingly always striving for something more, yet sadly, succumbing to our baser (and decidedly lesser) instincts. Garland’s “Ex Machina” reflects the idea that man’s next great struggle is rooted in managing our creative expectations.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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