Directed by Alex Garland
Opens April 10
In the brisk, confidently dialogue-light opening minutes of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) wins a workplace contest and gets whisked off to a remote facility, the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the tech-genius head of his company (an ultra-powerful search engine, of course), to work on a secret project. Nathan’s high-tech bunker looks like a zoo habitat crossed with a boutique hotel, with just a hint of scary basement; Caleb appears to be an ambassador to the outside world. He’s there, he discovers, to help administer a Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander)—to determine whether the robot Nathan has built qualifies as true artificial intelligence.
Visually, Ava seems designed to confound those tests: a beautiful face on a robotic body with mesh-looking covering that resembles a bikini, even if it’s just covering up wires and chips. Mentally, she’s more convincing: she answers and asks questions, she shows curiosity, she generates sympathy. But is this canny programming? And if so, is that different from human instinct? The ambiguity is heightened by Vikander’s performance, which blends seamlessly with excellent special effects that would have been unthinkable at this movie’s budget level even a decade ago. She deepens the sexy-robot archetype.
There aren’t many humans in Ex Machina, even if you count Ava; much of the movie is a series of uneasy conversations between Caleb and Ava, and Caleb and Nathan. As played by Isaac, Nathan counters, or possibly contributes to, his self-mythologizing by going casual: drinking too much, lounging around, and referring to his employee as “dude.” It’s a canny rewrite of the mad scientist script; you can take away the cackling grandiosity of the man playing god, and it turns out he’ll still look kinda creepy—and in Isaac’s hands, pretty droll, too. The movie never gets too apocalyptic or high-minded to remember its characters and break for an unexpected laugh.
Though the setting and set-up are relatively simple, Garland refracts his premise through enough glass (naturally for such a high-tech compound, much of Ex Machina‘s imagery has to do with glass and the half-reflections the camera catches in it) to lend a possibly inevitable outcome the pleasurable illusion of suspense. Garland’s novel The Beach was adapted into a film by Danny Boyle’s team, and he subsequently wrote two of Boyle’s best genre pieces, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. DNA Films, co-founded by Boyle’s longtime producer Andrew MacDonald, made Ex Machina, and Caleb’s arc into a creepier, more intense world recalls a number of Boyle features. But the careful, menacing hum of this movie feels more akin to David Fincher, or the quieter scenes of Christopher Nolan, than Boyle’s hyper-stylish freakouts (not that there’s anything wrong with Boyle’s take on this sort of material; obligatory reminder that Sunshine is a great movie). Caleb, caught between Nathan and Ava, finds himself torn between trusting a human and his creation, and shallow focus give many of the images an appropriately fuzzy edge.
Though the story hinges on the gathering of data via those all-powerful search engines, some of the movie’s own information is processed as clumsy exposition; it takes place over about a week, but Garland doesn’t always account for all that time very well. As Ex Machina wraps up, it lingers a little too long on its falling action, offering several check-in shots reconfirming points that smart audiences will have already divined. But its parting shot is just about perfect, neither alarmist nor sentimental. The movie may play even better at the end of the year, in a double feature with Boyle’s next project: the biopic Steve Jobs.