One of my all-time favorite science fiction writers is Philip K. Dick. It’s not that Dick is a particularly poetic or adept writer; his prose can be clunky, his dialogue a little heavy and not always natural, his characters often more functional as stand-ins or symbols than real people. And yet, there’s something truly engaging about Dick’s writing, as he engages himself wholly with wild, thoughtful ideas, and uses his novels to explore them in as much depth as he can manage, all before often blowing up the debate in a way we never expect. It’s Dick’s ideas, really, that make his books so compelling, so rich, and so rewarding.
I bring up Philip K. Dick to begin this review because he’s the obvious comparison point for Ex Machina, a film that’s deeply concerned with exploring its ideas in all of their complexity and thoughtfulness. Ex Machina is a simple film, one that’s almost entirely about three characters: an inventor, his newly-crafted robotic AI, and a young coder brought in to test the AI and see if it passes the Turing test (more or less; mind you, the term “Turing test” doesn’t exactly apply, since he already knows that she’s an AI…but you get the idea). And over the course of the film, writer-director Alex Garland runs with the idea, exploring what artificial intelligence is, where the line is between AI and life, and the blurring lines between consciousness and programming.
That’s heady stuff, and although it’s the subject of plenty of films, Ex Machina handles the debate adroitly and with style to spare, focusing on the dialogue and the complex ideas and assuming that the audience can keep up with the subtleties. And the lowkey performances help keep the film’s focus; these are smart people having intelligent conversations, and the film lets them be without condescension or dumbing them down.
So why, then, is my rating up there so mixed? Mainly, it’s thanks to the last act, which chucks out a lot of the interesting nuance and thoughtfulness in favor of a thriller where complex characters become flat, everyone’s nuance is lost, and people are sorted into categories instead of letting them be complex. Garland has a history of bad endings – most notably there’s the much-maligned final act of Sunshine, in which a hard science-fiction film becomes a slasher flick – and while Ex Machina‘s ending doesn’t feel like a cheat, it’s a massive letdown from the film before it. That’s especially true in the case of Oscar Isaacs’ prickly genius, who becomes a cartoonish villain instead of acknowledging his thoughtful, quite valid points. More than that, the film ultimately feels like it’s tipping its hands, weighing in on the moral questions that the film raises instead of letting the viewer decide for themselves – and if you disagree with some of it, the film’s ending will feel especially jarring. (Most notably, I think the way I took the ending is very, very different from the way Garland wants us to interpret it, tonally speaking.)
There’s still so much to like about Ex Machina – Garland’s style is impeccable here, bringing an icy calm to everything and using color in really gorgeous ways. The performances are all solid, especially Vikander as the AI at the heart of the film. But ultimately, that ending is frustrating, mainly because the first two acts of the film are so, so strong, and the choice to turn it into a generic thriller at the end really detracts from what could have been much more complex, thoughtful, and interesting.