Movie Review: “Ex Machina”

Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Alex Garland

Screenwriter Alex Garland has worked almost exclusively in the science fiction genre (from “Sunshine,” to “Never Let Me Go,” to “Dredd”), so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut occupies a similar space, this time focusing on the decades-old debate of artificial intelligence. Making a movie about A.I. isn’t exactly a novel premise, but Garland has a really good track record when it comes to putting a fresh spin on familiar material (see: “28 Days Later”), and he doesn’t disappoint with “Ex Machina.” A smart and chilling piece of sci-fi that packs a punch, the movie is so self-assuredly efficient in the way that it utilizes its various parts that it doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker at all.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a young programmer at Internet search engine Blue Book who’s just won an office-wide lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive but brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote home/research facility in Alaska. Although Caleb is excited just to have the opportunity to meet and hang out with the tech genius, Nathan has other plans: namely, to enlist Caleb’s assistance in conducting a Turing test on his newest creation, an incredibly lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), in order to determine whether the artificial intelligence can pass as human. But when Caleb begins to develop feelings for Ava during the course of their conversations, he begins to question whether her sexuality has been programmed by Nathan or if her mutual attraction is real. As he digs deeper into Nathan’s research, Caleb discovers that there’s more to his work than he’s letting on.

While “Ex Machina” has a “been there, done that” vibe to the story, it’s never been done quite like this, which is what makes Garland’s approach to the material so engaging. The movie draws inspiration from likeminded films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but at its core, it’s basically a modern day retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with a twist, with Nathan as the creator and Vikander as his monster. What separates “Ex Machina” from all those other movies about the potential dangers of sentient A.I., however, is the addition of Gleeson’s character to the equation, because it uses Caleb’s humanity/moral compass against the audience to make you sympathetic towards Ava even though virtually every film about robots has taught us not to trust them.

Garland’s script can be overly talky at times, comprised mostly of Caleb’s sessions with Ava and his post-meeting debriefings with Nathan, which is why it was imperative that he cast the right people. There are only three actors (well, four, if you count Sonoya Mizuno’s speechless assistant) in the entire film, and they’re all perfect in their respective roles. Sporting a bushy beard and shaved head, Isaac shows why he’s one of the best actors working today as the eccentric and calculating tech guru, like Mark Zuckerberg playing make-believe as a Bond villain. But it’s the scenes between Gleeson’s nice-guy Caleb and Vikander’s cold and naïve Ava that make “Ex Machina” work as well as it does, striking such a great rapport that it completely sells the idea of a man falling in love with a robot, no matter how ridiculous that may sound.

“Ex Machina” is intelligent science fiction operating at a very high level. The movie hits on some pretty big concepts without ever alienating the audience, and the sci-fi elements feel authentic despite the fact that we’re still several years away from creating such technology. The visual effects are also quite impressive, but they never overshadow the story by drawing too much attention to Ava’s beautiful but simplistic design. Though the film moves at a fairly slow pace, meandering towards its crackerjack ending, it’s never boring, and that’s to the immense credit of Garland’s clever script and some excellent performances. Anyone who’s seen Garland’s previous movies knows he can write, but with “Ex Machina,” he announces himself as a talented director who can not only spin a good yarn on the page, but on the screen as well.