[Screen It]


(2015) (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac) (R)

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Sci-Fi: A computer programmer is summoned by his reclusive, inventor boss to determine if his latest creation, a realistic looking female robot, possesses true and undeniable artificial intelligence.
Caleb (DOMHNALL GLEESON) is a 26-year-old programmer who learns he's won a company lottery prize to spend a week with their reclusive CEO, Nathan (OSCAR ISAAC). Nathan's company runs the number one search engine on the Internet, but he's after more than just that, something he introduces to Caleb at his remote, underground and highly secretive home-meets-lab. There, while his non-English speaking assistant, Kyoko (SONOYA MIZUNO), tends to his daily needs, Nathan has created a realistic looking robot he's named Ava (ALICIA VIKANDER).

He's brought Caleb there to perform a so-called Turing Test on her -- namely to see if she possesses truly believable artificial intelligence. As the week begins, Caleb begins interviewing Ava and is impressed by what he sees, hears and experiences. But during occasional power glitches in the lab -- during which Nathan is unable to monitor their interaction via camera and microphone -- Ava instructs Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says or does. Keeping that in mind as the week progresses, Caleb comes to sense Ava as a real being, all while wondering what's really going on and what Nathan might really be doing.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
I recently saw a video on YouTube where a robotic manufacturing corporation has created animal-like robots (all completely mechanical in appearance and walking on four limbs) where the designer, programmer or maybe just a mean bystander kicks said creations over.

It's obviously being done to test the robot's ability to maintain or regain its footing, but all I could jokingly think was that you hope that creation is never given artificial intelligence and then allowed to watch said video.

In fact, I could apply that to allowing any said future consciousness-equipped robot, android or non-humanly shaped computer to watch most any movie about such mechanical beings. After all, in the vast majority of such movies, be that "2001: A Space Odyssey" or the "Terminator" flicks, they end up turning on humans. And we wouldn't want to give them any ideas or showcase our obvious paranoia and hatred of them.

Of course, those sorts of movies have long been examples of cautionary stories about taking technology too far, and the latest sort of Pandora's Box tale is the superlative "Ex Machina." Named after the old literary term "deus ex machina" ("god from the machine" -- usually referring to a contrived and sudden resolution to a plot or character dilemma), the film is a heady piece of sci-fi, fleshed out with terrific performances, a smart script, solid special effects (especially considering the low budget) and expert direction. So far, it's one of the best films of 2015.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (making his debut behind the camera after penning screenplays for the likes of "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine"), the story is about a young programming whiz (Domhnall Gleeson) who's summoned by his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) to that man's very remote estate and lab to deploy the Turing test.

That's a series of protocols deployed to determine whether a machine can exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. Caleb then spends a week with Ava (Alicia Vikander in a stunning performance that makes you believe you're actually watching a robot be human), interacting with her in the same room, but physically separated, all while Nathan observes said interaction.

While there really isn't anything new here that other films and sci-fi works have explored in the past, what makes the film so compelling (beyond Vikander's mesmerizing work) is that you're never sure what's really at play or the true motives of the players.

Caleb is obviously the "outsider" stand-in for the viewer, but it's unclear how much Nathan is yanking on the puppeteer's strings in manipulating Ava and/or the young programmer. And the inventor's all too human faults (drinking to excess, being involved sexually with his robots, having a raging ego) could have some pondering whether he might just be the surprise test subject of the test. But it's Ava who's the beguiling character. Is her humanity simply pre-programmed coding? Does she consider herself human? Or is she manipulating the humans to get what she really wants?

All of those questions came to my mind while watching this 110-some minute film unfold. I won't divulge which, if any of those queries is correct, but they kept me engaged and involved in the tale and I imagine they or other such questions will likely have the same effect on most viewers.

Although it might be too slow for those weaned on fast-moving, action-packed sci-fi offerings, I found the pic just right in terms of pacing and just about every other aspect. And it could likely be a breakout role for Vikander who's appeared in other films, but none with a character as mesmerizing as the one here.

Hopefully, her work will be remembered come major awards season (maybe robots will get to vote), a sentiment one hopes will apply to the film as well. Seemingly arriving from the cinematic gods in a season of mostly otherwise lackluster offerings, "Ex Machina" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 20, 2015 / Posted April 24, 2015

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