Exploring the potential perils of artificial intelligence is sci-fi conceit almost as old as the genre itself. Yet it still seems fruitful for retellings as we inch closer towards that fictional concept becoming a reality. Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is a creepy, clever and terse rendition of the ol’ A.I. chestnut that works really damn well.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as sad and lonely computer programmer Caleb, who wins the nerdy equivalent of the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. He’s been invited to spend some time helping computer genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) work on his latest super secret project. Given that Nathan is a multi-billionaire – having created a web site halfway between Google and Facebook – he lives in an isolated compound in the middle of nowhere so that he can toil away on his big ideas without any intrusion from the outside world.
Nathan’s latest creation is A.I. – more specifically, a see-through android with a beautiful face played by Alicia Vikander. Nathan needs an outside voice to come in and interview his creation, Ava, to determine whether or not she genuinely has a consciousness or is just brilliant software capable of simulating one. From there, things get rather strange. Nathan frequently flies off into alcoholic stupors, while Caleb’s interviews start turning into seduction sessions perpetrated by an android whose creator deliberately gave it sexuality. It’s hard to tell who’s playing whom. As the three-handed game of chess mounts, it’s even harder to sympathize with the humans over the robot.
Garland has cranked out strong sci-fi screenplays for over a decade now, such as ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Dredd’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’. He has a very distinct voice, one that’s cool, detached and intellectual, yet easily seduced by genre thrills. That he transitions well into directing should come as no major surprise given that his voice as writer/producer has grown with each project.
Garland crafts a very rigidly composed and chilly world. The compound set is a claustrophobic nightmare of Ikea/Apple minimalism, and his camera framing only heightens the tension. From the moment the audience enters into the world of the film, the director milks an impending sense of doom for all it’s worth until the movie transforms into a horror romp just in time for the grand finale. However, as stylistically accomplished and carefully paced as ‘Ex Machina’ is at all times, it’s also primarily a film about ideas and characters.
The movie is essentially a three-hander and battle of wits, with Gleeson playing Garland’s typical passive-protagonist-turned-passive-aggressive-antagonist, and Isaac delivering a wildly perverted computer genius psycho who playfully toys with expectations. Both actors are wonderful and their characters complex, but it’s impossible to tear your eyes off Vikander anytime she’s on screen. She plays her android not with any robotic tics, but as an eerily perfected approximation of human behavior. Every move she makes is deliberate, both seducing the audience and the characters around her. The brilliant android design and visual effects make her mechanics visible at all times, yet it’s easy to forget those expensive extras with a performance this strong. Vikander’s Ava is a fascinating character, destined to be remembered as one of the most creepily complex A.I. life forms ever captured on film.
As Garland carefully builds up his game of psychological/technological warfare, he gently seeds in clever themes and ideas. The decision to give the android sexuality not only says a lot about her creator’s twisted mental state, but also presents a compelling argument for the requirement of gender and reproduction in any living being. Elsewhere, Garland mixes in some outlandish yet credible future tech and all sorts of distressing parental/creator parallels.
What initially seems like a big scary robot movie soon transforms into a condemnation of damn dirty humans, and what emerges is a strange sci-fi movie in which the audience is forced to actually root for the A.I. character over the deeply flawed representations of humanity. It’s a nice little thematic magic trick that – when combined with some expert genre manipulation, beautifully simple visual effects and brilliant performances – delivers one of the finest science fiction movies in recent years.