REVIEW SUMMARY: Atmospheric and disturbing, Alex Garland’s first directorial effort works in large part because of affecting imagery and leads Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander, even if its screenplay provides an unsurprising ending and the material might be too familiar to science fiction fans.
Brief Synopsis: A young coder wins the opportunity to spend a week at the mountain retreat of reclusive CEO Nathan, where he learns he will be the human component in the Turing test of Ava, a humanoid robot.
Pros: Spare direction and use of locations; Alex Garland’s moody, haunting direction; exceptional pacing; strong performances from Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac; outstanding work by Alicia Vikander as Ava, upon whose performance the movie depends; good screenplay and structure…
Cons: …that unfortunately cannot shake an ambiguous ending that doesn’t quite make sense; underwritten viewpoint character; for a number of science fiction fans, fairly conventional approach to material.
Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, stares through glass at Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is surprised at the construct with whom he interacts. Though a machine, she cannot help but exhibit curiosity about this visitor to CEO Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) mountain retreat, while Caleb cannot help but express fascination and wonder at Ava, who wears an exquisite face over a slim metal body, her electronic “brain” a gel glowing through a transparent skull and her limbs covered only by a gray skein. Ava may be a marvel of special effects—one of the few used in Ex Machina—but Vikander, whose portrayal of this artificial intelligence conveys a mixture of iciness, curiosity, and desperation, breathes the necessary life into her character to make the audience care. Caleb might only be a visitor to Nathan’s home to serve as the human side of a Turing test, but, in an unusual role reversal, Vikander, under the direction of Alex Garland (who, as the screenwriter for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, is no stranger to genre), makes the audience believe she is an android who must pass.
Likewise, Ex Machina must walk the delicate balance between idea-driven science fiction and intriguing characters, something cinema seldom does well. Garland (who also wrote the screenplay) finds that balance in part by limiting his tale to Nathan’s home and the surrounding mountainous terrain (which also gives the movie some visual balance) rather than exotic cityscapes and intrusive ancillary technology but also by limiting the number of characters; other than Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s sole housekeeper, only Caleb, Ava, and Nathan play any prominent role in Ex Machina’s telling, which keeps Garland’s focus from wavering and, in turn, allows him to explore these individuals with a level of insight uncommon for a genre picture. Even his plot is kept minimal, almost elemental. As the movie unfolds, and the characters slowly divulge their intentions, Garland never cuts to an outside world reacting to this experiment.
In keeping everything insular, Garland structures Ex Machina like a Gothic novel. He takes Caleb away from civilization to an enchanted locale, his trek to the reclusive Nathan’s getaway explained as a contest prize. Nathan’s home, as hyper-modern as one would expect for the CEO of a technology firm, resembles a castle with subtle lighting and Spartan, monastic décor, a kind of spiritual getaway that steps into symbolic overkill with Nathan’s shaved pate and full black beard, a kind of Dalai Lama in an age of spiritual machines crossed with Allen Ginsberg. Caleb falls in love with the beautiful Ava, held captive in this steel-and-glass castle, her robotic spirit evocative of the heroines in a Brontë novel, and promises, ultimately, to help her. (The movie itself, of course, retells one of the most famous of Gothic novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) Caleb’s search through the house (aided by the use of Nathan’s key card, swiped during one of Nathan’s and Caleb’s drinking sessions—Garland divulges Nathan’s excesses fairly early) reveals secrets that might seem innocuous to those not journeying through the Uncanny Valley, thus only underscoring Caleb’s decision to assist Ava. Fortunately, Garland maintains an air of unease required by the Gothic tale throughout Ex Machina, releasing tension with the right touches of humor. (At one point, Caleb wonders aloud if Nathan might have based Ava on a pornography profile. Nathan chuckles, asking what other possible use a search engine could serve.)
Ex Machina sounds overly cold and cerebral, but it in fact engages viscerally as well as intellectually. Garland establishes this fairly early, when Nathan first tells Caleb that he could explain his breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but does not want to sound like an academic lecturer. It makes Nathan appear engaging and likeable, despite some deep-seated control issues. When Caleb asks why Nathan built Ava, he sounds like Elon Musk justifying his own personal space race. Likewise, when Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan, we believe her, despite the fact that she is a mere machine. Isaac and Vikander, then, must bring their best possible performances to this archetypal material, and manage to do so. Gleeson, by contrast, seems the weakest link of the three, since, as a stand-in for the audience, he must serve as something of an everyman, but even he finds a compelling performance in a largely underwritten role.
Garland’s hold on the material slips on occasion. A moment where Caleb questions his own humanity feels geared more toward shock and thus never quite convinces, while the denouement and conclusion make little real sense—an especially glaring flaw when one considers how hard Garland works in keeping Ex Machina intellectually consistent. Moreover, many science fiction fans, to say nothing of a generation that absorbed episodes of The Twilight Zone into its collective unconscious a long time ago, might find little new in this telling of a postmodern Prometheus. They would be mistaken. The pleasures of Ex Machina lie not only in the details but also outside of them. Unlike most faux science fiction movies, it passes its own unique Turing test; it possesses not just intelligence, but a soul.