Ex Machina taps back into that old sci-fi conceit of exploring the troubling implications of artificial intelligence. It’s been explored many times in the past (as recently as Spike Jonze’s Her), but a theme that only seems to be more worthy of discussion with each passing year as we inch closer to it being a troubling reality rather than a troubling theory. The film works and works beautifully because it springs from the mind of Alex Garland, a screenwriter/producer who gradually built up his distinctly detached voice through such projects as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. Garland makes his directorial debut in Ex Machina and there’s not a second of the running time that isn’t imbued with his whip-smart hard sci-fi ideas, lurid genre thrills, and cynical wit. The flick is a great deal of fun, but the type of fun that leaves a haunting impression that’s difficult to shake for even the most hardened of genre fanatics.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as a lonely and geeky computer programmer who wins the opportunity to help out computer genius Oscar Isaac with his new project. He’s flown to Isaac’s isolated compound where he has completely detached himself from the world to focus on getting ripped, getting drunk, and inventing impossible technology. His latest invention is artificial intelligence, delivered in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander). She’s a beautiful creature with hypernatural human movements and a see-through mechanical body. Gleeson has been issued the task of interviewing Ava to determine whether or not she’s a genuine artificial consciousness or just a really well-crafted program that approximates it brilliantly. That would be a creepy enough way for Gleeson to spend his time, but unfortunately he’s also subject to the strange whims of Isaac who has carefully locked off all of the areas of his compound that he doesn’t want Gleeson to visit and seems to be watching and manipulating the young man at all times. To make matters more complicated, Ava tries to seduce Gleeson in early meetings and has devised ways for them to have secret conversations. As a result, the audience is trapped in a claustrophobic three-headed game of psychological warfare in which the cyborg might be the most likable character on screen.
The most remarkable achievement in Ex Machina is Ava. The creepily mechanical design by comic book artist Jock and a collection of visual effects wizards is at once beautiful, mysterious, fascinating, and terrifying. Despite having a body defined by an effects team, Vikander manages to deliver a wonderfully enigmatic performance impossible to tear your eyes from. Rather than going for any sort of herky-jerky robotic movements, she’s balletic and smooth, quite cleverly feeling more human than human in a remarkable performance unlike any other big screen android. Though Vikander’s Ava dominates the film, the other two characters involved in the mind games are quite fascinating and brilliantly performed in their own way. Isaac delivers a man of contradictions, a bear-like computer nerd whose self-destructive impulses are matched only by his distrust for any other being outside of himself. It’s a Col. Kurtz for the internet age, a lost nerd for whom nerd rage borders on psychosis. Gleeson seems to have the simplest role at first, but he’s one of Garland’s usual passive-protagonists-turned-passive-aggressive-antagonists. So, he’s anything but the innocent he initially appears to be and Gleeson delights in toying with those ambiguities.
The tone and style of Ex Machina is at once rigidly controlled and wildly unhinged. In the early going the movie is defined by meticulously arranged compositions and a careful rise in suspense. It’s clear from the first moment something is wrong and Garland playfully teases out his true motivations for as long as possible. Then once all the major players are in place and the central conceit is established, Garland goes buck wild. The film can be stoically serious in once scene and riotously darkly comedic the next. There are disco dancing digressions, perverted uses of naked robots, and a tense/violent finale that pulls the picture into horror movie territory. Yet despite all of those oddball digressions that enhance the visceral genre impact of the project, Garland never loses track of his grandiose hard sci-fi ambitions. The film explores all sorts of intriguing notions like whether or not artificial intelligence can desire or the necessity of sexuality in any living being. Strange new technologies are examined and all of the ugly impulses of humanity are laid bare. There’s plenty of brainy material to chew on in Ex Machina without ever spoiling the giddy rush of entertainment.
Ex Machina represents the brand of adult driven genre filmmaking that most folks like to complain doesn’t exist. It’s very much alive and well and available, it just requires a little digging to find. Alex Garland has built a career off of thrilling genre nuts while tickling their brains ever so gently and in many ways Ex Machina feels like the culmination of his work to date. It’s a rich and complex work that will also glue you to your seat. There are any number of reasons to be seduced by the film and hopefully many will find it long before it arrives on Netflix. Films this visually ambitious and intellectually satisfying and emotionally devastating demand the big screen treatment. Seek it out immediately. You won’t regret it.