Do the robot
Men playing with microchips learn that perhaps highly intelligent robots aren’t the best idea in Ex Machina, a competent and exciting directorial debut from Alex Garland, who also wrote the script.
Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a weekend hanging out with his eccentric, reclusive boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after arriving, Caleb learns that he’s to take part in an experiment where he must interact with Nathan’s latest creation: a mightily attractive and lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Caleb is told to analyze Ava’s legitimacy as a full-blown A.I., a thinking robot with emotional capability. He does this, and develops a robot crush along the way. In many ways, Ava seems constructed as Caleb’s ideal woman, and Nathan’s motives are quickly called into question. Not only is Nathan playing god, but he’s totally using Caleb as a guinea pig.
While Garland could’ve easily made this a Caleb vs. Nathan affair, he tosses in enough variables and throws plenty of curveballs to keep the audience guessing. The film works as a thriller, science fiction, a mystery, and even passes a few horror movie tests.
As the tensions mount and the film races toward a surprising conclusion, the performances become more tour de force, especially for Isaac, who gets to play a few scenes convincingly drunk. And thanks to a Garland script that harbors a huge brain, Ex Machina winds up being a convincing piece of sci-fi. The future depicted in this movie feels like it could happen within the next 10 years. Heck, judging by all the crazy shit my iPhone can do, it probably will.
Ava is a nice special effect, fortified with nice acting from Vikander. Ava has many human attributes, including her beautiful face, her charming demeanor, and her otherworldly butt (creator Nathan is clearly an ass man). Much of her body is see through, allowing her mechanical innards to be in full view. She is consistently interesting to behold, and Vikander fleshes her out nicely.
Gleeson, who has been making a habit of showing up in a movie and doing outstanding work (Frank, About Time and Unbroken to name a few) doesn’t break his streak with this one. He makes Caleb a realistic portrayal of a confused young man being used as a pawn in somebody’s game. He also brings a sinister edge to later scenes that make him far from one-dimensional.
While those two performances are exceptional, they are actually bettered by Isaac’s work. Isaac is developing into one of his generation’s best actors, and he’s also quite the chameleon. His Nathan is a slithery, hard-drinking, narcissistic, brilliant mess of a human, and a far cry from the grouchy folk singer he played in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Given the isolated setting for the film, this is mostly a three-performer show, although Sonoya Mizuno does give a haunting performance as Kyoko, Nathan’s live-in servant. Kyoko sort of rounds out the general nastiness of the Nathan character, a control freak with a god complex who has his nice, chummy moments, but has all the warning signs of somebody who is looking out for himself and himself only.
Garland’s debut is unique enough to declare original, although he does take some visual cues from Kubrick and Spielberg who collaborated—Kubrick posthumously—for the great robot epic A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina plays like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’s first cousin.
Garland has been kicking around Hollywood for years, delivering solid screenplays for the likes of 28 Days Later, Dredd and Sunshine. His work behind the camera here definitely points to a future directing if he wants it.
Isaac and Gleeson will be seen together again this year in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens. I’d say we have the two frontrunners for Science Fiction Kings of 2015. Vikander’s remaining 2015 slate includes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Light Between the Oceans, the latest from director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), so she has a shot at breakout performer of 2015. At this point of the year, she’s my pick.
As for a future including robots that act and think on their own, Ex Machina is the sort of film that will have you wishing for a future that draws the robotic line at Siri and Roombas.