United Kingdom. Directed by Alex Garland, 2015. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. 108 minutes.
Ex Machina stars Domnhall Gleeson (Frank) as Caleb, a code monkey for Bluebook, a Google-in-all-but-name tech company whose flagship product is a search engine. Bluebook’s boy-wonder founder and guiding light Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Being Llewyn Davis), flies Caleb out to his isolated complex to work on what he describes as the most important scientific breakthrough of all time. Nathan has developed an artificial intelligence, which he calls Eva (Alicia Vikander). He wants Caleb to run a Turing test on Eva, to determine if she really is conscious or is merely faking it. But it soon becomes clear that Nathan is hiding his real agenda…
Defining and exploring concepts like “humanity,” “life,” and “consciousness” are business as usual for narratives about artificial intelligence. So it’s no surprise that Ex Machina, the directorial début of screenwriter Alex Garland (best known for his work with Danny Boyle, particularly 28 Days Later), deals with these themes. But they’ve also been part of the science fiction lexicon since at least Frankenstein, which provides a layer of the story and gives Garland the chance to examine some other themes as well.
At the forefront is the relationship between the creator and the thing he creates. At certain points, Nathan seems to deliberately mis-interpret remarks Caleb makes about his seemingly god-like achievement. What’s the difference, ultimately, between being a god and merely playing at it? Another key moment comes when Caleb asks Nathan why he built what is essentially a fembot to house Eva’s intelligence. The ensuing conversation allows Garland to explore gender relations and touch on feminist themes, as does the relationship between Caleb and Eva, which starts off in the form of mild flirting which gradually transforms into sexual tension over the course of the film.
Ex Machina features excellent characterization and performances to match. I was most impressed with Vikander, who has the tricky task of juggling an outward naïveté with a broad, strong intelligence. Nathan’s arrogance makes him the obvious villain of the film, but Isaac’s performance brings out a lot of implied depth. Gleeson presents Caleb as a relatably awkward figure with a lot of book smarts but lacking in what pop-psychologists call “emotional intelligence.”
Garland’s performance as director is very strong, featuring excellent camera work and a steady, measured pace. The consistency of the mood stumbles once or twice, notably in a dance (yes, dance) sequence that turns out more comic that it probably should have. One or two plot developments are very obvious, but are more “inevitable” than “predictable.” Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow turn in a score that perfectly accompanies the story and visuals, ominous and occasionally dissonant; Barrow’s pop-music experience, as musical mastermind behind the legendary Portishead, serves the final product very well.
All told, Ex Machina is a decisive victory for dialog-heavy, cerebral, non-explosion-based science fiction in the 21st century. I hesitate to declare it 2015’s equivalent of Under the Skin or Upstream Color, but consider it essential viewing for anyone who’s interested in SF as the cinema of ideas.