Blu-ray Review: Ex Machina

Ex Machina Blu-ray boxSTUDIO: Lionsgate | DIRECTOR: Alex Garland | CAST: Oscar Isaac, Domnhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
RELEASE DATE: 7/14/2015 | PRICE: Blu-ray/Digital HD Combo $24.99, DVD $19.98
BONUSES: featurettes, cast and crew Q&A
SPECS: R | 106 min. | Science fiction | 2.40:1 widescreen | DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS:X | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

At a time when the topic of sentient machines is hot – everything from the new Terminator movie to the AMC series Humans either touches on the subject or delves into it – Ex Machina stands tall as the Artificial Intelligence treatise sci-fi fans have been waiting for. Because it’s set in a near future where AI is still in its nascent stage, it can more fully explore questions about self-awareness, emotions and what constitutes “human,” using a proxy for viewers who are still awed and perhaps slightly frightened by the possibility of a thinking computer.

That proxy is Caleb (Domnhnall Gleeson, Unbroken), a skilled coder at Blue Book, a Google-like search engine company. When he wins a raffle to spend a week at the estate of the firm’s enigmatic founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), he thinks he’ll be spending his time bonding with the boss. In actuality, Nathan has cherry-picked Caleb to “test” his latest opus, an Artificial Intelligence android in female form named Ava (Alicia Vikander, A Royal Affair). The fact that Ava’s hot, even with transparent, android-like arms, legs, and midsection, isn’t lost on Caleb, or his host. What follows is a series of exploratory “sessions” with the caged Ava, touching on the Turing Test (named for an early AI experiment set forth by computer pioneer Alan Turing), human relationships and sexuality, and philosophical thought experiments like Mary’s Room, which questions whether knowledge can be complete without experience to back it up. Soon, Ava reveals that Nathan isn’t the magnanimous visionary he appears to be, and Caleb is questioning whether he is testing Ava or if Ava – and by extension Nathan – is testing him.

Alicia Vikander has a face-to-face encounter in Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander has a face-to-face encounter in Ex Machina

It’s a tantalizing premise, and writer/director Garland (who wrote the sci-fi flicks Sunshine and Never Let Me Go) wraps it all in a shiny package with stark, subterranean rooms, equally jarring but colorful lighting, and convincing special effects. Shots of Ava from a distance, as when she dons a dress and leggings to hide her mechanized body parts, or when she and another female character roam the starship-like corridors, are gorgeous. Almost as compelling are sweeping views of Nathan’s vast estate, comprised of lush mountains, glacial ice fields and monstrous waterfalls (these scenes were shot in Western Norway).

All three lead performers are exceptional, but Vikander is particularly fun to watch as she blends childlike affectations with those of a programmed entity. Sensuous and flirtatious, cunning and manipulative, her Ava is the femme fatale most rational men fear. Vikander, we learn in the supplements, is a trained ballet dancer, and her precise, economic movements join with hints of familiar human gestures, like the giddy hand-wringing of a teen girl to create a surprisingly complex character.

The Blu-ray disc looks exceptional, but sounds even better. This is a talky movie, but the audio track, available in DTS:X and DTS-HD Master Audio, delivers a wellspring of music and sound effects when necessary, adding great drama to key sequences, including the climax. It’s a slow build, but the musical score ultimately comes to the fore in a way that evokes great science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Garland’s own Sunshine.

For a trailblazing A-list feature, the disc’s supplements are a bit scarce. We get no commentary track, for example, but hear frequently from Garland in the 5-part featurette, “Through the Looking Glass,” and nine behind-the-scenes “vignettes.” Those segments have much overlap, and three of them deal with Ava, attesting to her importance from both story and effects standpoints. The last piece deals with the music, and the film’s composers affirm that they sought an innocent cue for the movie’s “newborn” character. Finally, there’s an hour-long Q&A with Garland, the composers, Isaac, and the director of photography, recorded at the 2015 SXSW Convention.

Like the best science-fiction, Ex Machina makes viewers think, and question. It is itself a thought experiment writ large with state-of-the-art effects.

 

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About Gary

Gary Frisch has been contributing laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray reviews to Video Business magazine, Home Theater Magazine, Home Theater Buyer’s Guide, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater and the DVD Guide for more than 14 years. He still has a collection of more than 40 laserdiscs, along with a working auto-reverse LD player, but thinks Blu-ray is da bomb and anxiously awaits the original Star Wars trilogy so he can buy it for the fifth time.