After winning a competition to spend a week at the mountain estate of his company's brilliant CEO (Oscar Isaac), programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to discover he has been chosen to take part in a study of artificial intelligence. Sworn to secrecy and cut off from the outside world, Caleb meets his subject, a beguiling and seductive android (Alicia Vikander) — and is plunged into an A.I. experiment beyond his wildest dreams in this epic thriller charged with heart-stopping suspense.
"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 Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray.***************
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 send 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 the audience.
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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Lionsgate Home Entertainment brings Ex Machina to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy. The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region A locked, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-cutout case with a glossy slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to an animated menu screen with music playing in the background.
Nathan's humanoid robot takes on a new life on Ultra HD, powered by an excellent and beautiful HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10.
Worth noting, however, is Rob Hardy's gloomy, atmospheric photography, which is restrained and largely falls on the lower end of the grayscale, makes assessing the picture quality somewhat challenging. The movie is pretty dark overall with ominous shadows practically engulfing every corner of Nathan's ultra-sleek and modern house. Nevertheless, items in the background and the darkest corner remain visible while also more distinct, revealing some of the architectural details missed in the HD version. At the same time, the blacks in clothing, hair and random furniture appear inkier and more luxurious, providing appreciable depth and a cinematic appeal.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, contrast is also improved, showing brighter, crisper whites in the sterilized walls and a sharper, better shine in the specular highlights. Metallic objects throughout the house come with a more realistic glow against the light, and this is best appreciated whenever Ava appears on screen, making it possible to better see the internal workings of her body. Added to that, although colors are pretty limited, the palette overall is fuller and a bit more vibrant, such as the electric blues and vibrant yellows in Ava's spine. Interestingly, there are times when viewers can see some teal in there as well. The red lights during power outages are also richer with a more threatening intensity, and the greens in the surrounding foliage are more energetic and lively.
Shot entirely on digital cameras capable of native 4K, which was later mastered into a 4K intermediate, the transfer is noticeably more detailed, exposing every negligible blemish and pore in the entire cast. The androids, too, come with an outstanding lifelike complexion and texture, and Ava's mesh body is razor-sharp. Sadly, I detected several instances of mild aliasing in a couple computer monitors and the floor lighting inside Ava's room. Nevertheless, the 2160p video is a terrific, excellent improvement.
The sci-fi drama debuts on UHD with the same DTS:X soundtrack enjoyed on the Blu-ray. It's a richly complex and somber mix with a majority of the activity and action spread across the screen. Because it's a character-driven film, much of the attention is placed on the dialogue, so conversations are distinct with precise, accurate inflections in each emotional line. The back and forth chats are also littered with a variety of low-key and muted background noises, such as the faint, soft hums of electrical currents from computer monitors, light sources or the joint movements in Ava's endoskeleton. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's musical score fills in the rest of the soundstage with superb fidelity and warmth while also bleeding into the front heights, creating a broad, half-dome wall of sound. The most interesting aspect of the design is the silence, which often hovers over the room and stands out all the more during power outages. Ambient effects very subtly occupy the surrounds and overheads on a few occasions with an effective sense of realism and directionality. Low bass is equally understated but nonetheless, accurate with appreciable weight, providing a uniquely immersive aural experience.
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.
The sci-fi drama takes on a new life on Ultra HD, powered by an excellent and beautiful 4K presentation that offers a nice improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart despite Rob Hardy's gloomy, atmospheric cinematography. It also features the same complex, somber DTS:X soundtrack and the same set of supplements as before. Nevertheless, the UHD package is recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.