Now this is my kind of movie. Ex Machina is cerebral, intense and electrifying science fiction, one of the better examples of the genre in its purest form to come along in recent years. And it’s no surprise to learn that it’s sprung from the mind of Alex Garland, the novelist-turned-screenwriter who makes his directorial debut here. Since 2002, Garland has written two superb original sci-fi screenplays (28 Days Later and Sunshine), while also penning a pair of its finer recent adaptations (Never Let Me Go and the criminally overlooked Dredd). While other anointed “visionary” filmmakers have let us down, Garland has been quietly building a body of work that may just earn him that title through both the quality and quantity of his output.
Garland seems to have an innate understanding of just what science fiction is supposed to do, and his films have more of a kinship with the genre’s magnificent literary history than its spotty cinematic record. Sci-fi movies today often have a difficult time creating a sense of awe or wonder or even existential terror, but Garland seems to achieve those effortlessly. Ex Machina feels and plays like a sci-fi film from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s — when movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Privilege, Quatermass and the Pit, THX 1138 and The Andromeda Strain were all marrying dizzying thematic concepts with striking visuals and confident control of tone and atmosphere.
Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken) stars as Caleb, a programmer who works for the world’s largest and most successful search engine, Bluebook, and who wins a chance to spend a week at the isolated estate of the company’s reclusive, brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When Caleb arrives at Nathan’s rustic retreat-cum-research-facility, he quickly learns that Nathan means to have him apply the Turing Test — designed to determine whether a machine’s behavior and responses are equivalent or indistinguishable to that of a human being — to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android that Nathan has created who may possess true artificial intelligence. Over the course of the week, however, all three — the two men and the robot — exhibit hidden motivations and shifting loyalties that may have implications beyond the confines of Nathan’s enclave.
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Right from the start, Garland generates an absurdly potent amount of suspense, from the build-up to Caleb’s arrival at the estate to the introduction of Nathan himself. Garland has written and Isaac portrays the character completely against type: rather than a distracted lab rat wrapped in a smock, Nathan likes to box, wear either tank tops or shirts open to his chest, possesses some serious dance moves (in one of the movie’s more hilariously surreal scenes) and drinks a hell of a lot. He’s like a raging party animal who has no one on his level of intellect to party with. But those vestiges of humanity mask a personality that sees everyone and everything around him as part of his experiments and fails to recognize them for anything beyond that. Adding another tremendous performance to his resume, Isaac has created a truly original take on the mad scientist archetype.
Gleeson (who, like Isaac, will also be seen later this year in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Vikander are both up to the task at hand as well. Gleeson’s Caleb reveals himself slowly to be lonely and troubled, but never shies away from challenging his boss or utilizing his own formidable intellectual powers to make decent moral choices. The script doesn’t let him down either, never sacrificing his intelligence for stupidity just in service of the plot. The Swedish Vikander (The Fifth Estate), meanwhile, half-cloaked in a seamlessly realized CG construct that applies her features to a largely synthetic body of plastic, whirring gears and blinking lights, brings an air of otherworldliness, sensuality and eerie calm to the role of Ava.
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Garland pits the three of them — as well as a fourth player, Nathan’s vaguely creepy and silent servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) — against each other within the walls of Nathan’s futuristic, super-secure home, much like he has focused on the crew of a claustrophobic spacecraft in Sunshine and the residents of a crime-ridden, cut-off apartment tower in Dredd. The movie is built around an increasingly tense series of conversations — either between Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava — that are brimming with either lofty ideas or unsaid meanings. Nathan and Caleb discuss what the arrival of true artificial intelligence could mean for humanity, while Caleb’s interactions with Ava (which only take place through thick glass) slowly evolve from basic questions of identity to subtly erotic flirtation. Ava wants to be a woman (and, according to Nathan, is equipped to interact with human males in other ways as well) and the more heated shifts in her talks with Caleb seem to coincide with an alarming number of power failures that bathe the both of them in glowing red emergency lighting.
While Caleb’s feelings remain pure, it’s Nathan’s megalomaniacal tendencies that prove to be the driving force of the story and the source of its thematic concerns. For all his insouciant charisma and superior mental abilities, Nathan has a darker, uglier side that has distorted his view of human beings — and especially women. His treatment of both Ava and Kyoko borders on cruel, and one thing Ex Machina possibly suggests is that our own inability to have one gender of our species relate to the other on equal terms may make us vulnerable to replacement altogether. While the final act of Ex Machina plays out more predictably than the movie’s first two thirds, the underlying machinations (no pun intended — maybe) and subtexts keep it rich and satisfying.
The themes at work here have cropped up repeatedly in sci-fi, but have been rarely handled with such clarity and lack of pandering. Garland proves himself fully capable with both actors and images, getting tremendous performances from his three leads while keeping the movie’s cloistered setting visually beguiling with the help of cinematographer Rob Hardy. The score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow is also a thing of ominous, pulsating beauty. Most importantly, all are employed in the service of a story and film that never feel as they’re talking down to anyone, that challenge viewers’ expectations and that communicate an intelligence and depth we can never get enough of in this genre. If there was a Turing Test for science fiction films — to determine whether they are the real deal or not — Ex Machina would pass with ease.