9 out of 10
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith
Directed by Alex Garland
Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has won the chance to spend time with internet mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has been working on a secret project involving artificial intelligence (A.I.) that requires Caleb’s expertise. Nathan has created a fully-A.I. cyborg nicknamed Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is so lifelike that Caleb starts to find himself falling for her.
Screenwriter Alex Garland had already established himself as one of the 21st Century’s predominant sci-fi masters by writing 28 Days Later and Sunshine for Danny Boyle and adapting Never Let Me Go for Mark Romanek, so it was only a matter of time before he got behind the camera himself and he’s made quite a directorial debut with Ex Machina. Science fiction films about artificial intelligence and human-like robots are nothing new, but Garland approaches the subject like some of the literary masters before him with a film that’s driven entirely by the characters and their dialogue.
Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb isn’t far removed from the nerdy character he played in Richard Curtis’ About Time, although quite a bit more intelligent, as we see him travelling to the remote underground facility where Oscar Isaac’s Nathan seems to be living a solitary lifestyle. Caleb soon gets to the job for which he was hired, interrogating Ava to determine whether she really is sentient or just a very well-programmed computer. Nathan monitors all of Caleb’s interviews with Ava, but she’s figured out a way to take out the facility’s power so she can talk privately with Caleb, confiding in him that he shouldn’t trust Nathan.
It isn’t too hard figure out where things go from there, especially once you meet Nathan’s “housemaid” Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the silent Japanese beauty who seems to be more of his sex toy–although they do have a fun dance scene together. It’s pretty obvious she’s also a robot, probably an earlier version of Ava, but we eventually learn that Norman’s interest in A.I. are far more selfish and potentially sinister.
Like some of the best films of the year so far (True Story and Z for Zachariah being two), this is a three-hander, where it’s all about the interactions and dynamics between Caleb with Norman and with Ava and how each relationship affects the others.
Oscar Isaac plays the eccentric billionaire recluse living in the middle of nowhere by himself so impeccably, spending much of his time drinking and acting oddly enough to keep Caleb off his guard on how seriously he takes the operation. Isaac’s boisterous performance is part of what keeps the film so entertaining despite its deliberately slow pace and serious nature. Enhanced by impressive VFX to make her more cyborg than human, the beautiful Alicia Vikander is just fantastic playing the cyborg Ava, equal parts super model and HAL2000 with incredible sex appeal but also exuding an innocence that makes it easy to understand why Caleb might fall for her.
In that sense, Garland uses the fairly overused idea of an intelligent robot to explore the dynamics between men and women–how men view and use women and vice versa. It may seem like an odd choice for a programmer with narcissistic and misogynistic tendencies like Nathan to create an A.I. that’s able to so easily manipulate men as Ava does, but that’s part of what helps to prove her sentience, that she isn’t just another robot willing to accept anything that’s expected of her.
At this point, a film being deemed Kubrick-ian is considered a real thing, and it’s a comparison that can only truly be given as a compliment. Usually, it means having sparce production design and subdued camera movement, but Garland’s visual homages to Kubrick are more than just the obvious comparisons of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kubrick’s posthumous Spielberg-directed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
The Bottom Line:
Intelligent and constantly thought-provoking, Ex Machina is a brilliant take on robots and A.I. It’s become far too commonplace to overuse the term “masterpiece,” but Alex Garland’s directorial debut comes about as close as you can get.