It’s rare for a science fiction movie these days to actually make important observations about society in an intelligent manner. Alex Garland’s directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’ manages to capture future shock with solid performances, chilling suspense and a sleek modern look. Although the minimalist special effects are state of the art, this film relies on a clever screenplay that reveals a world that may be closer than we ever imagined. Garland is an accomplished novelist/screenwriter and a frequent collaborator with director Danny Boyle on such films as ‘The Beach,’ ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Never Let Me Go.’ It’s amazing this is his first film as a director since he shows his understanding of visual composition required in filmmaking.
The fascinating aspect of the story is that it is essentially a psychological thriller about three main characters. It centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer that has won a contest to spend a week at his boss Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) compound in the mountains. He is the charismatic billionaire and founder of a Google-like company that is the dominant search engine in the world. Nathan invites him to take part in an experiment. He has built Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent android and wants his guest to test his new creation to see if she can pass as a human. It’s a premise that has been done but not as effective as in this mood piece. Most artificial intelligent films focus on the robots but this one focuses on the human element. Nathan wants to find out if Caleb will fall in love with Ava.
Caleb begins to spend time with Ava separated by a glass wall. He asks her questions to figure out her level of intelligence and whether she has a conscious. Vikander was an excellent casting choice for the role of Ava. She is a Swedish actress that brings a delicate beauty to her character’s metal exterior. We never forget that she is a robot but there is an alluring quality to her persona. Gleeson plays the role of a computer nerd to a tee. He is fascinated by Ava and as they have more sessions together, it is obvious he is getting emotionally attached to her. Garland uses the claustrophobic environment to heighten the tension. There is uneasiness during their encounters when the power cuts off, red lights turn on and the two think they are alone. Ava confides to Caleb regarding her true feelings about her creator. The real concern Caleb must figure out is whether Ava truly likes him or if she is pretending to like him.
At times, it feels like Nathan and Caleb are playing a high-stakes chess game. Isaac is superb as the mad genius. He gave one of the best performances of 2014 in the overlooked film ‘A Most Violent Year.’ And now in his latest incarnation, he is nothing less than brilliant. He is almost unrecognizable with a shaved head, bushy beard and muscular build. His mood swings are explosive when dealing with Caleb. One moment he acts like a frat brother wanting to drink with a buddy. At other moments, he turns belligerent and seems to enjoy playing mind games with his house guest. The question arises in the audience’s mind whether it’s actually Caleb and not the robot being analyzed in the experiment. Throughout the story, you just sense that something bad is going to happen.
Garland has created an unsettling tension from the bunker style house to the translucent design of the robot. The audience knows just like Caleb that there is something off about the set up. Nathan presents Caleb with a key card that only accesses certain doors in the compound. His boss is an intimidating force the way he gets drunk at night and the next day obsessively punches a bag to sweat it out. Isaac hits the mark as the reclusive and eccentric genius. The visual design of Ava is stunning and disturbing at the same time. Her face, hands and feet are the only parts of her that take on human form. The rest of her body is made up of metal and fiber optics. It always reminds us that no matter how intellectual she speaks, she is still an android. Yet the actress Vikander gives Ava a captivating and vulnerable quality. The Swedish beauty is definitely one to watch in Hollywood.
‘Ex Machina’ is a provocative science fiction thriller that takes a frightening look at where technology may be headed in the not-too-distant future. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/s-HiQ9K2uf4.