By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The title comes from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, meaning “god from the machine.” And Ex Machina is about a “machine” made by someone playing God.

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The science fiction drama Ex Machina features Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith, a mild-mannered computer programmer who works for BlueBook, a search-engine corporation run by Nathan Bateman, a reclusive CEO played by Oscar Isaac.

3

(3 stars out of 4)

As the film opens, Caleb, who has won a competition within the company, is on a helicopter headed for Nathan’s mansion in the mountains in Alaska.

When he arrives, he is told by Nathan that he will be the human participant in his latest experiment in artificial intelligence, administering a surreptitious Turing test (the one alluded to in The Imitation Game), which is aimed at ascertaining a machine’s ability to exhibit the intelligent behavior and recognizable emotions of a human being.

And what a machine it –- that is, she -– is.

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander portrays Ava, the lifelike android created by Bateman who exudes an uncanny and unsettling sex appeal.

Ever the accommodating host, Nathan wants Caleb to interact with artificial intelligence Ava often enough to be able to determine whether she could pass for human.

Caleb does so, and in the process there is something intimate happening between them that seems a lot like flirting.  Is Caleb getting emotionally involved with this “machine”?

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But it’s the things that Ava whispers to him when no one is watching them in their glass-walled observation room that make Caleb wonder just what’s going on here and exactly what Ava’s agenda might be.

But because she will have her memory erased if she fails the test, Caleb thinks about helping her to escape from Bateman.

Alex Garland (who wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let me Go) makes a striking debut as a director, working from his own script and using the understated but nonetheless ominous atmosphere to keep us apprehensive and almost hypnotized in the early going.

The special visual effects he resorts to are effectively eerie without being distractingly showy.

Gleeson is fine in the lead and Vikander holds the screen like nobody’s business.  But it’s Isaac, who has rather quietly become an accomplished and versatile screen presence (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) who makes the most persuasive case and lasting impression in this fascinating virtual three-hander.

Such familiar science fiction themes as the difference between a human and a humanoid and the consequences of playing God surface without too much fuss, and the film certainly and commandingly suggests itself as a worthy companion piece to Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), with Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson.  (Come to think of it, Her would also work as the title of Ex Machina.)

So we’ll create 3 stars out of 4 for Ex Machina, a stimulating sci-fi speculation that gives the contemporary issue of artificial intelligence a fascinating workout.
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