Ex-Machina is the impressive directorial debut from Alex Garland (screenplay writer of Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later), who manages to take the best aspects and themes of other great sci-fi tales and crafts a cerebral, atmospheric sci-fi thriller. It’s one that easily ranks among the best of the genre. The film is grounded with three stellar performances from promising young actors who are given powerful philosophical and psychological questions to dwell on. The deft direction will leave you deeply engrossed as the tightly-wound plot begins to unravel.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an up-and-coming programmer given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to personally assist his reclusive boss, Nathan Bates (Oscar Isaac), with one of the most important technological advancements of all time…true artificial intelligence. The artificial intelligence is cased within the humanoid body of an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the following week Caleb must conduct several interview sessions with Ava to measure her ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to a human’s…essentially, can Ava pass as human? As the experiment continues, Caleb begins to uncover troubling secrets and starts questioning who is testing who?
Ex-Machina wisely narrows its focus to the three aforementioned characters who all deliver exceptional performances. Previously seen as the immensely likeable lead in About Time, Domhnall Gleeson continues to impress here as the audience surrogate – we experience the events through his perspective. Gleeson gives Caleb a sense of confidence and charisma to a character that could have been played too broadly in the hands of a lesser actor. He makes for a great reference point to keep the audience grounded and often speaks and acts on the audience’s behalf. As soon as I began to question the logic of something brought up in the film, his character immediately addressed it resolving any issues that come to life.
Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is the perfect counter to Caleb. Though both characters are brilliant intellectuals, it is the contrasting characteristics and personality-traits that distinctly define the two. Caleb and Nathan’s contrasting archetypes and their debates on consciousness and humanity provide some of the most riveting conversations in the film. Whereas Caleb is sensitive, firm, and compassionate, Nathan is boorish, arrogant, and unpredictable. Oscar Isaac, who has had a rare string of successful performances recently, is able to take what is clearly setup to be an untrustworthy villain and imbues Nathan with charm and likeability. Nathan’s dual-natured performance allows for each scene he appears in to be a genuine surprise.
However, it is Alicia Vikander’s Ava that is Ex-Machina’s biggest surprise, turning in what will surely become a career-making performance. Conveyed mostly through subtle facial cues and affectations, Vikander is able to delicately walk the line between human and artificial intelligence effortlessly. Ava is given sensitivity, depth and warmth but Vikander effectively restrains her performance allowing Ava to be underlied by cold, machine-like, calculations. Through the combination of Vikander’s scene-stealing performance and the sleek, eye-popping design of her character, Ava will inevitably by hailed as one of the most iconic science-fiction characters.
For a low-budget science-fiction thriller, Ex-Machina features some truly jaw-dropping and seamless effects. When District 9 was released, it was unanimously praised for its impressive special effects since it was widely known to be completed with a comparatively low budget of $30 million. Ex-Machina’s effects surrounding Ava are absorbing and even more remarkable considering the film is working with nearly half of what District 9 had budget-wise. Along with the aforementioned performance by Vikander, the CG work is immaculate making Ava striking, visceral and, most importantly believable. Outside of the phenomenal effects work, the film is gorgeously shot with sleek and spartan sensibilities and a steady, assured pacing very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. The sets are all barren and claustrophobic which serve to add to the palpable tension infused within the film.
More impressive than the film’s inherent aesthetic beauty is the thematic resonance at Ex-Machina’s core. The narrative revolves around Caleb and Ava’s Turing Test (whether an artificial intelligence can pass for human), bringing up some genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking questions regarding consciousness and artificial intelligence. This is the second film in 2015 to deal with these themes, the first being Chappie which struggled to provide anything deeper than spectacle. It’s refreshing to see Ex-Machina handle these themes with the care and intellect that they deserve, a necessary touch that was sorely missing from Chappie. The most obvious theme deals with man’s hubris playing god and pushing the morally questionable boundaries of science further than they should ever be pushed. This leads to a narrative that is not predictable but is inevitable, and never feels too far removed from the very best offerings of The Twilight Zone.
Digging further beneath the surface uncovers a more universal and relevant theme that touches upon feminism and gender roles much in the same way that Under the Skin did in 2014. As the interviews between Ava and Caleb continue, his character slowly starts to fall for the human-like android. The naive Caleb becomes a very specific archetype – the knight in shining armor who becomes determined to free Ava from the clutches of her creator. Nathan, on the other hand, consistently objectifies Ava and is consumed with the notion of the next, better model that is yet to come. Ava is simply another notch on his belt, if you will. Though you experience the film through the eyes of Caleb, Ex-Machina does not want you to root for either of the two men, and instead allies its sympathies with Ava who is continually objectified throughout the film’s proceedings. As the climactic events play out, it becomes clear that Ava is and always was the film’s protagonist. This pervasive theme is handled subtly and gracefully without preaching or talking-down to its audience.
All told, Ex-Machina is an amazing cinematic experience featuring some of the most fully realized and nuanced characters seen in any film this year. It is slow and deliberate in its pace with most of the tension hinging upon the dialogue and character interactions. It is rich in its thematic structure and provides a rewarding experience for the patient and thoughtful viewer. Not only is Ex-Machina one of the best science-fiction films in the last few years, it is an amazing film in its own right…one that will undoubtedly be mentioned again in many Top Ten lists at the end of the year.