A kind of radical re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by way of Asimov, Ex Machina is a tense, closed-circuit kind of film. Writer/director Alex Garland presents a new twist on a number of cinematic and science-fiction tropes that doesn’t trod any especially new territory, but does it with a sleek, understated style.
Young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) wins a company lottery giving him a week at the secluded estate of his reclusive boss, tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When Caleb arrives, he discovers that Nathan has brought him there for a very specific reason: he is to be the human component in a Turing test for his newest creation, a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As soon as Caleb begins interviewing Ava, however, it soon becomes clear that there’s more going on and that Nathan may not be telling him the entire truth about Ava or the test.
While this is Garland’s first film as a director, his science-fiction bonafides have been more than well-established as a writer. His scripts include 28 Days Later and its sequel, Sunshine, Dredd, and the upcoming film based on the video game Halo. This is his first film, however, where all of the action is psychological and all of the stakes decidedly microcosmic. Unlike his previous films, which mostly involve dramatic threats or upheavals to a global social order, the drama of Ex Machina remains contained to Nathan’s estate. While there is passing mention of how humanity might react to a being like Ava, the focus is always on the immediate interactions between the main characters.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing in equal measures. With nearly the entire film set in Nathan’s estate and with no significant supporting characters besides Nathan’s mute servant Kyoko (played by Sonoya Mizuno), Ex Machina could very easily have been an experimental stage production. The film is even helpfully divided into scenes with title cards announcing each session Caleb has with Ava.
While the limited focus allows Garland to highlight the film’s primary conceit about what the true meaning of consciousness and humanity is, it also means that the film is somewhat airless and opaque, and just like a stage production, we are only allowed into a character’s mind as much as the dialogue allows. This does allow the characters to exist completely on their own merits, as it’s nearly impossible for the audience to sympathize with anyone, but it also means that shifts in motive and mood can sometimes seem arbitrary and jarring. There’s one particularly discordant piece right in the middle (you’ll know it when you see it) that doesn’t make sense at all since we can’t get inside any of the characters.
Even if the film takes third-person limited to its cinematic extreme, the third-persons involved are fascinating to watch as they run through their routines. Vikander is a pitch-perfect android, her voice a kind of slightly maternal, slightly seductive female HAL. The effects rendering her synthetic body are simply amazing, but Vikander never lets the CGI do the work for her. Gleason’s overwhelmed everyman plays well off of Isaac’s frat-bro mad-scientist Mark Zuckerberg, and the tension that slowly builds between them as Caleb grows closer to Ava is played off organically, even if the characters themselves sometimes seem pre-programmed.
To Garland’s credit, the film unfolds slowly and evenly, and even if some of the plot twists are easy to guess for devoted fans of science-fiction, he still makes them seem unexpected. The film ends on a highly ambiguous note, and it only sort of answers its primary thesis. It’s an intellectual sci-fi film that leaves most of the intellectual discussion to the viewer. It might exist in a vacuum, but that doesn’t stop it from being intriguing and absorbing just the same.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B