Directed by: Alex Garland.
Written by: Alex Garland.
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko).
I saw Ex Machina the same weekend as Avengers: Age of Ultron – another film that deals with the morality of creating Artificial Intelligence, and its implications. Because Age of Ultron costs hundreds of millions of dollars though it doesn’t actually have time to deal with most of the questions it raises – instead it touches on them, and then moves on to another scene where lots of things get blown up. Ex Machina basically spends its running time in something that Ultron glosses over in an instant. And it’s far more thrilling, intelligent and exciting because of it. This is a movie of ideas – all set in one location, with only four characters. And it’s one of the best movies of the year.
The film stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb – a programmer with a Google-like company known as Blue Book. He wins some sort of contest which gives him a chance to spend a week with the reclusive genius who founded Blue Book – Nathan (Oscar Issac) as his estate in the middle of nowhere. He arrives, and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, and being told how everything works – especially his keycard, which only gives him access to certain parts of Nathan’s house (which he says isn’t a house at all – but a “research facility” – which is why it has no windows and is in the middle of nowhere) – Nathan reveals to Caleb why he is there. Nathan thinks he has perfected Artificial Intelligence – in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander) – a “female robot”. Caleb is there to give her a “Turing” test – basically to see if she really does awareness of who she is, and what she feels, or whether she’s simply imitating it. The only other person at the research facility other than the three principles is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s silent, Japanese maid, who doesn’t speak or understand English.
In broad strokes, Ex Machina touches on a lot of different genres in its sci-fi setup. Nathan is clearly a Dr. Frankenstein like creator – a hubristic genius who creates something that he cannot control and may in fact become his downfall. There is a film noir element in the way Ava and Caleb slowly develop feelings for each other – and then plot to gain their freedom from her “abusive” male authority figure (Nathan again). We know where this movie is headed from early in the proceedings – and yet that doesn’t hurt the narrative as it often does, because writer-director Alex Garland provides more than enough surprises on a character level, not necessarily a plot one, as the movie goes along and he deepens and twists things around.
The movie seems simple in its construction – it’s basically a series of two-handers between either Caleb and Ava or Caleb and Nathan, along with scenes of Caleb by himself discovering the secrets Nathan has buried. The movie is split into “chapters” for each of the daily sessions that Caleb and Ava share together. These are followed by debriefing sessions between Caleb and Nathan, as Nathan really wants to get Caleb’s opinion on Ava. The scenes are opposite sides of the same coin – with each passing day, Caleb and Ava get closer and closer, while Caleb and Nathan getting further apart. Caleb shows up at the lab idolizing Nathan, but the more he gets to know him, the less he likes him. What he, and we, do not know is to what an extent it’s all an act? Is Ava manipulating him? Is Nathan? Are both of them?
Ex Machina has gotten both praise and criticism for the way it portrays gender in the film. After all, this is a film with two women who are wholly dependent on the men in their lives for everything. Yet, to me, this is a movie that directly confronts that issue. Nathan may be a genius, but he is clearly an immature man stuck in a frat boy mindset in how he views women – and how he views Caleb for that matter. It’s there in the way he says “dude” and “bro” a lot, or how he’s pumping iron, and getting black out drunk every night. He may well have a point when he says that yes, he did need to give Ava sexuality for her to be passably human, since all humans – and all living things – have a sexual aspect to their nature. But as time goes on, it seems more and more likely that Nathan is just trying to create his own version of the “perfect woman” – beautiful, smart, sexy and completely under his own control. While Nathan is clearly a misogynist, Caleb is perhaps a little guilty of his own brand, kinder, gentler brand of sexism – as he cannot help but see Ava as dependent on him. He isn’t as outright nasty as Nathan is, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine him talking about what “nice guy” he is, and bemoaning the fact that women don’t want him.
The performances in the movie help a great deal. Gleeson is in many ways playing a similar role as he played in last year’s Frank – he’s the audience surrogate we need to help get us into this world. The movie, and the actor, gives him slightly more depth than most of these surrogates however. Issac once again shows why he is one of the most impressive actors around right now. He has an easy charm about him in the movie that gradually takes on a darker, crueler edge as the film progresses. The immensely talented Vikander is given a very hard role in Ava to play – and nails it. She has to be both somewhat artificial, but still show subtle signs of emotion.
This is Garland’s debut film as a director. He’s been an accomplished screenwriter for a whole – most notably for Danny Boyle films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine (another Boyle film, The Beach, was based on Garland’s novel), as well as the excellent, under seen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for Mark Romanek. Garland’s film is better than any of those – a coldly intelligent sci-fi film with hints of Kubrick in it. The film’s excellent use of special effects actually enhances the story rather than replaces it. The ending of the film plays out much like you expect it to – but is colder than I thought possible. Basically, Ex Machina is the type of sci-fi film I love. One that has ideas at its core, not special effects or action sequences.