Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with “Ex Machina”, a sci-fi thriller about the advent of artificial intelligence. Garland’s most known for his screenwriting talents, a few notable among them include “28 Days Later” and “Dredd”. His previous films are usually tight, smartly written and very to the point. The real question here is whether or not his capabilities behind the camera can match.
The story begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning in a company lottery. He’s a programmer at “Bluebook”, a popular search engine in the vein of Google. The prize for the lottery is a weeklong retreat with the mysterious head of the company, the reclusive genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Essentially he’s the employee who won the golden ticket and is whisked away to meet the technological Willy Wonka. In a surprising turn, Nathan ends up being far more personable and laid back that what you might expect. After signing a particularly specific nondisclosure agreement, Caleb is shown what Nathan’s been working on in his secluded research facility: a true artificial intelligence by the name of Ava (Alicia Vikander). Turns out, the real prize was to serve as her “Turing Test”, a series of interviews in which the interviewer determines whether or not the machine is self aware and capable of human level interaction. In other words, is Ava alive?
On the surface, this is a familiar story. There are many story elements and tropes commonly found in science fiction, especially those regarding A.I. and their rebelling against their creators. Even the “Turing Test” is something famously used during a few key scenes in “Blade Runner”. As with all robots created to be as alive as any human, there’s bound to be problems. Where “Ex Machina” differs is in the approach to the story. Garland takes these familiar elements and weaves them into a cerebral, almost minimalist approach. The movie is set almost exclusively in Nathan’s scenic home/research facility, a place where many doors and halls are closed off and don’t even include windows.
While surely hiding budgetary limitations, it gives the movie a closed in, almost claustrophobic feel, adding to the tension that increases throughout the film. What it boils down to is trust. Caleb suspects that Nathan brought him there for reasons he’s not telling him. To add to this, Ava insists that Nathan cannot be trusted and that everything he says is a lie. This then brings into question her capabilities; is she lying to him, pretending to like him in order to get something out of him, or is she right, and Nathan is keeping secrets that would be problematic for Caleb to uncover?
It’s a fascinating conundrum that serves as an ongoing element in the plot. The music adds a sense of menace and mounting tension that would otherwise not be there in silence. It’s subtle, but lingers in the back of your brain. The entire movie is dependent on the script and the three main actors. First there’s Ava herself. Alicia Vikander manages to really sell that she is an artificial creation, but there’s something lacking when it comes to her appearing human. At least in terms of plot necessity, it’s difficult to accept how quickly she gets Caleb on her side. In making her character seem less human, she comes across that way more than she should.
Domhnall Gleeson is the central character and surrogate for the audience. He’s there to be in the dark, much as we are. What’s actually pretty amusing is that his character is a skilled programmer, at first primarily interested in the inner workings of Ava and her software. In a clever bit of subtle fourth wall breaking, Nathan tells him that he’s only there to discuss the A.I. with him in a natural way, not dwelling on the technicalities but on her “humanity”. In other words, let’s not rely on big words and techno jargon.
Speaking of Nathan, this is yet another charismatic performance by Oscar Isaac. With movies like this, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and “A Most Violent Year”, he’s quickly becoming one of the most interesting character actors of this generation. His character was clearly written to bring a bit of life to the story, adding more personality by having a man ruled by his arrogance, intelligence, and eccentricity. Oscar Isaac elevates the material even further, making his every scene stand out. He’s intimidating, yet likable. Despite the way he manipulates and lies to Caleb, there’s something endearing about him and also surprising about how candid he seems, or at least pretends to be.
“Ex Machina” is a smart and sleek thriller, purposefully crafted by a thought provoking script and strong performances. It’s carefully plotted and meticulous in its pacing, allowing the progression of the test interviews to direct the characters and dictate the story. In the end, it comes down to a bizarre scenario of trust. When you’re lost in the dark, who do you turn to? Do you listen to Frankenstein, or the monster?