If you've read your fair share of science fiction – real science fiction, the kind built on philosophical ideas and plausible science – Ex Machina will feel familiar to you. It's not so much that the story borrows too liberally from any particular sci-fi tale, but rather that it serves as a near-prototypical example of what the genre has to offer. The film is “predictable” in the sense that you can frequently guess what's coming next, but consistently surprising in the way it fills its inevitable developments with thoughtful (and occasionally challenging) nuance. In terms of artistic ambition, it's a science fiction film that belongs in the same category as Moon, Her and Under the Skin.
Alex Garland, the film's writer/director, has played a role in a number of thematically compelling sci-fi works. He wrote the novel The Beach, and supplied the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. Ex Machina (Garland's directorial debut) is the purest and most satisfying of his works, perhaps because he's learned a few things over the years and perhaps because his vision is no longer compromised (or at least altered) by the artistic inclinations of other directors. There are thematic bits and pieces of his earlier works present here, but in almost every case, he goes deeper with them this time around. In a sense, it feels as if Garland's whole career has been building to this moment.
The story begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, Frank), who works for a powerful tech company inspired by Google (we're told the company handles 94% of the world's search engine inquiries). Caleb wins a lottery contest at his workplace, allowing him to spend an entire week with the company's reclusive founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis). Upon arriving at Nathan's well-hidden estate (a chilly, hi-tech house surrounded by thousands of acres of barren woodland), Caleb learns the true reason for his visit: Nathan wants him to conduct a “Turing test” of sorts on a humanoid A.I. called “Ava” (Alicia Vikander, A Royal Affair). In other words, Nathan wants to know if Caleb finds Ava to be convincingly human.
Over the course of seven days, Caleb conducts a series of interviews with Ava, searching for flaws in her programming that might reveal her true nature. It doesn't take long for things to start getting complicated and uncomfortable. Caleb begins to suspect that Nathan – a charismatic but intimidating man who values his privacy to an almost alarming degree – may be tweaking the test in a variety of ways. He's also alarmed when Ava admits she has feelings for him... and even more alarmed when she informs him that she's well aware he feels the same way.
Ex Machina offers a lot of complex ideas on the relationships between men and women, and particularly the way men seek to possess, control and subjugate women. It doesn't take us long to realize that Nathan is a cruel master, and one only has to look at the way he treats his housekeeper (Soyona Mizuno) to understand that he regards women as objects. The tragedy of Ava's scenario is that she has the intelligence to understand how poorly she's being treated, but lacks the means to precipitate her escape. Caleb begins to feel something of a moral obligation to help her, but that moral obligation is at least somewhat tempered by the fact that Ava isn't actually human.
All three of the central performances are exceptional, with Isaac immediately standing out as the highlight of the bunch. Nathan is a wildly intelligent guy, but seems insistent on presenting himself as a normal dude. He objects when Caleb tries to speak in advanced technical terms, uses the word “bro” on a regular basis and pays as much attention to his biceps as he does to his programming. Isaac brings a wide-eyed playfulness to the part that's both entertaining and threatening, and he keeps you guessing about just how much of his cocksure braggadocio is a smokescreen for his true nature. Observe the way he jumps into a “spontaneous” disco dance in front of Caleb – it's so precisely choreographed that you can't help but wonder if he's been planning this little moment for quite a while.
The look of the film is sterile, muted and chilly, and the minimalist design of Nathan's home occasionally reminded me of the uncomfortably bare house featured in Kenneth Branagh's remake of Sleuth. It's a house of thick walls, plexiglass panes and neon panels, and the cinematography often has the focused objectivity of a surveillance camera. I love the way Garland uses a recurring technical glitch within the house as an opportunity to color-code dramatically intense moments. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury feels comparable to the work of composers likes John Murphy, Cliff Martinez and Clint Mansell, building unsettling, understated, atmospheric cues that occasionally build to nerve-rattling electronic crescendos.
Despite his nastier qualities, Nathan has a way of keeping his work in perspective. He knows that he is not ushering in the next great era for humanity, but rather planting the seeds for humanity's ultimate downfall. He ruminates on a world in which the androids look back on us the same way we look back on cavemen – as clueless neanderthals who had little idea of how to access the limitless resources at their fingertips. Caleb quotes Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” As ever, humanity remains far better at acquiring knowledge than it does at acquiring wisdom. The film's conclusion is foreseeable, but inescapable – an inevitable reaping of what has been sown.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2015