I’ve made no secret about my love of theater on this website. Granted, a lot of that love has been reserved for musicals, but the love really stretches beyond that. Theater has the ability to put two people in a room and let dialogue and acting dictate a story in a way I find endlessly engrossing. Movies that employ this kind of storytelling are often dinged for being “too stagey” or “not cinematic enough”. People want plays and musicals opened up for a more visual, less aural experience. It’s not necessary, and can actually hurt what makes the piece interesting to begin with. Ex Machina isn’t adapted from a stage play, but it employs the stage tactic of simply sitting two people in front of one another to hash out their ideas and emotions verbally. The result is intelligent, entertaining, pulp science fiction at its best.
The questions proposed in Ex Machina have been visited quite a lot in the past couple of years. From the phenomenal Her to the abysmal Transcendence and Chappie, the questions of how far should we push artificial intelligence and what consequences will it have on humanity have dominated science fiction films as of late. Should be interpreted as actual panic, or are the movies trying to tell us something? It’s an inescapable fear genre filmmakers are working through, it’s the most modern way we are able to ask the most basic of questions in all of science fiction: What does it mean to be human?
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a coder for the Bluebook tech company run by Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb wins an online contest to go out to Nathan’s remote, heavily secure research facility, which he soon learns is to be part of a Turing Test. This test, named after Alan Turing (y’know, the guy The Imitation Game was about), has a subject interact with a machine to see if the subject finds the machine to be indistinguishable from another human. The machine he’s testing is an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The two start to form a bond, and ultimately suspect Nathan is actually up to something more sinister than he’s letting on.
The story is actually fairly simple, which is a good thing here. They are dealing with extremely lofty topics and questions, so creating an overly convoluted framework would only muddy the point. Instead, writer/director Alex Garland strips everything back and allows two people (or one person, one android) talk to one another. Garland is a writer first and foremost, with scripts for Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go under his belt, and he knows how to push forward story and reveal his characters through conversation without it feeling overly expositional or boring.
That is probably the best thing about this movie. Sure, people can get into the moral and human questions the film gets at, but this film is so entertaining to watch. Oscar Isaac manages to make Nathan a really funny character as well as one that makes you kind of terrified, complete with a terrific dance scene. Domhnall Gleeson nails the transition of being charmed by this A.I. to truly caring for her. And Alicia Vikander is tremendous as Ava, creating the slightest hint of coldness for you to always question how true her emotions and thoughts are. It’s a difficult balance to land, and she nails it. These three are responsible for 99% of the dialogue in the film, and each one brings their own unique perspective to the story and work incredibly well together.
I also loved the pulpy nature of it. This film is filled with humor, backstabbing, plot twists, and sexual tension, all swirling around these three characters. It never wants to be a dour movie. It has its slightly goofy elements, knows what they are, and makes it all come together tonally. If something was heightened a couple of notches more, it could be construed as trashy, but it always reigns it in to a manageable sense of fun and balances it with intensity. It is an impressive balance, especially for a first time director.
Though “stagey” at its most basic presentation, Garland creates a true sense of space and claustrophobia in this windowless compound. You are with Ava when she expresses desire to go outside and stand at a traffic intersection, and around other people. We are stuck here almost the entire movie, and the theatrical staging in this setting makes you want to break down the walls. We also get a really good sense at the blueprint of this facility, knowing what rooms lead to where and the geographical space in which they exist.
Ex Machina is impressive, as assured a first feature as we can get nowadays. Garland isn’t afraid to take on ideas with complicated and occasionally nonexistent answers, but where many idea films can easily drift to the boring and ruminating territory, this film keeps things lively, never sacrificing story or character in place of exploring an idea. The two coexist together. The plot boosts the ideas and vice versa. Vikander, Gleeson, and Isaac make a terrific trio of performers who embrace both the pulpy, fun elements and the real, human drama to create a fascinating and entertaining dialogue-driven, sci-fi drama. I certainly cannot wait to see it again.