Alex Garland’s Ex Machina shares similar themes of romance with an artificial intelligence being to that of Spike Jonze’s Her. Oh, but the tone is quite different. This low budget sci-fi feature announces a director with a visual style not unlike Kubrick and one suspects we’ll be seeing lots more from Garland in the future. We’ve seen similar material before, but never presented in the manner it is here and that makes Ex Machina an exciting experience.
The pic gets right into the plot as computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to travel to his gorgeous remote estate. Nathan is the founder and CEO of Bluebook, the largest search engine site in the world. Caleb is unsure of why he’s given this assignment but soon finds out that is to judge whether Nathan’s AI design Ava (Alicia Vikander) passes the Turing test. In other words, Caleb is to determine whether Ava passes for a human.
We witness their interaction through a series of sessions, with the eccentric, alcoholic, and probably dangerous Nathan monitoring their every moment of conversation. Almost. Intermittent periods of power blackouts allow Caleb and Ava to speak more frankly and Caleb soon discovers than Nathan’s intentions could be more sinister than he’s leading his employee to believe. As their sessions grow, Caleb develops an attraction for Ava and she becomes more and more human to him. She reciprocates his feelings.
The themes of the human race dealing with artificial intelligence in a sexual way are, once again, becoming a more common theme in cinema. Where Ex Machina succeeds is generating considerable tension in the dynamic between its two test subjects (there’s never much doubt Caleb is being tested too) and Nathan. Some of the movie’s most significant developments occur in the blackout periods generated by lost power and by Nathan’s love of hard liquor. We are constantly second guessing Nathan’s motives and soon begin to question Ava’s.
Isaac is given the juicy role here and he delivers another terrific performance once again. Gleeson is the straight man who convincingly plays the truly strange new world he’s found himself in. Yet Ex Machina hinges on the work of Vikander, who excels at creating this manufactured woman who quickly tugs at Caleb’s emotions.
There is no doubt that Garland is a real talent and he delivers a tight and often claustrophobic universe to let his three main players interact in (the only other major supporting player is Sonoyo Mizuno as Nathan’s non English speaking housemaid). With each subsequent session, the suspense escalates and we’re never quite sure where it’s all leading up to. When it does, the ending feels a tad predictable but also feels appropriate. This is not the sci-fi experience we’ve grown used to with an over reliance of effects. They’re here, but Ex Machina earns its worthiness from a director who confidently knows how to tell this story.
***1/2 (out of four)