For all the uncomfortable sci-fi tension on display in its trailers, Ex Machina essentially boils down to a series of gorgeous establishing shots and lofty conversations.
The film details a Turing test administered by Caleb, a computer programmer who wins a contest to meet Nathan, a sort of Steve Jobs stand-in who lives in a secluded mountain vista that doubles as a research facility. The boastful Nathan believes he’s bridged the gap between man and god and created artificial intelligence. Whether or not he’s succeeded, and what that potential success means, is the primary pursuit of the film.
As familiar a narrative as the unleashing of an artificial intelligence is Ex Machina manages to avoid the subgenre’s most commonplace trappings (the Skynets, Hals and Ultrons of it all) for a majority of its runtime, only dipping its toe into familiar waters in its waning moments. By and large, Ex Machina concerns itself with those aforementioned establishing shots and engaging one-on-one conversations, and while seeing a pretty stream then listening to two dudes talk about robot sexuality then seeing some foggy mountains isn’t the most exciting route to drive an audience through it proves an incredibly scenic one nonetheless.
We aren’t given Skynet’s global genocide or Hal’s deadpan malevolence or Ultron’s dinosaur obsession. We’re given conversations and charged with extrapolating the conclusions and consequences on our own. In a very real sense Ex Machina’s humble production allows it to become a sort of prequel to an A.I. blockbuster the audience is tasked with cobbling together themselves.
For better or worse Ex Machina isn’t Chappie. It’s not a practical, hands-on examination of robots blowing shit up. It’s a conversational exploration of artificial intelligence. What special effects their are, spectacular as they may be, are used with taste and restraint. You probably won’t be pumping your fist at any point in the film and there are no sparkling, sprawling action set pieces to drop your jaw. Ex Machina’s most inspired moments could be communicated via a podcast. And that’s a strength.