Ex Machina is the directorial debut of acclaimed oft-sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later). Fans will know to expect more from a Garland script than your typical sci-fi popcorn flick, and here, he delivers in spades both as writer and visual storyteller. This movie blends high-minded science fiction, psychological thrills, and social commentary in a uniquely entertaining way.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a software engineer who has won a contest hosted by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and developer of the world’s foremost search engine. Caleb is supposed to spend several days at Nathan’s mountain hideaway, but the contest is a ruse: Its true purpose surrounds the character of Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Ava is a robot hosting a new form of AI, and Caleb is invited to interact with her in a sort of Turing test of Nathan’s devising. As Caleb interviews Ava, he begins to question Nathan’s true motives, his own role in the story, and matters of conscience as his feelings for the machine evolve from deep curiosity into empathy.
Ex Machina invokes thought in the way only deep science fiction can, and invites comparison to the stories of Asimov and Clarke. Moving beyond the obvious, “Does it have a soul?” question is it’s most brilliant departure from things you’ve seen before: This is a story of the soul in jeopardy, of contrasting viewpoints, and the nature of creator and creation. It’s Genesis in the age of the smart phone.
The film manages a novel’s worth of story while true to its cinematic nature. Interesting visual contrasts inform the viewer on several levels: A well-appointed (if concrete) underground bunker in the middle of a lush forest contrasts nature with man’s creation, wherein the amenities of the rich contrast with its utility as testing ground and, perhaps, prison. Liquor bottles cast around the otherwise immaculate rooms, at times, hint at the damaged state of Nathan’s soul, and the impregnable glass walls throughout divide characters while hinting at points of contact. Ava’s form itself, so richly animated by Alicia, is an interesting contrast between idealized human features and vulgar mechanism (or is that backward?)
Though the movie is set almost entirely inside Nathan’s little fortress, cinematographer Rob Hardy tells a story with every surface, every nuance and detail of the place, constructing multiple frames-within-frames across the glass, but never so overtly that it removes you from the spectacle. Subtle arrangements in the blocking and backdrops serve to clue the audience in, but without a heavy hand. A simple scene in a kitchen, for example, is stacked with innuendo imparted by choices in viewing angle and background detail. Even the controlled lighting is administered to, its shifts communicating claustrophobia or intimacy, or subtly heralding the arrival of evil.
Domhnall Gleeson masters a subtle balance throughout: his character’s deep curiosity as he glimpses the frontiers Ava represents, and his willingness to pitch himself into the abyss of more immediate concerns. As Nathan, Oscar Isaac beguiles and menaces and every subtle shade between. However, the absolute standout here is Ms. Vikander’s performance as the humanoid Ava. She masters the smooth, graceful movements and vocal control of the robot, and imparts subtle, yet meaningful and controlled shifts in facial expression. She lets you know very early on that the new creation indeed has a soul. She also, without tipping her cards as a human would, hints at an infant’s curiosity and an indescribable yearning for experience.
SO, if you’re looking for something a bit deeper than your typical summer fare, and wish to leave the theater both thrilled and contemplative, this movie is for you.
A+, go see it now.