Novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland‘s directorial debut “Ex Machina” stars Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time,” 2013), Alicia Vikander (“Testament of Youth,” 2015), and Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” 2013). In the film, Caleb Smith (Gleeson)—working for search engine Bluebook—wins a company lottery to visit the house/research facility of CEO Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Once he’s in, Caleb realizes Bateman wants him to be a part of the Turing test involving his creation—an AI humanoid he’s named Ava (Vikander). Things are about to get messy between the three, but Ava’s the only one aware of this.
Well, Ava and the viewers, but we’ll get to that.
Let’s quickly rewind a bit to a year ago, when Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2014) dropped in cinemas and—later—home video. Glazer’s sci-fi body horror was more surrealist than cerebral, but it explored what it means to be human for someone who isn’t. Garland takes the more cerebral route but explores very similar themes. “Ex Machina” doesn’t just raise questions—it gives viewers an insight into the many deep, dark facets of being human and what the whole package really comes with. As the jaw-dropping finale closes the film, you may realize (also shown in “It Follows”) that survival always involves choosing between a rock and a hard place.
Which makes Garland’s debut directorial as much a character drama as it is cerebral sci-fi. (He also paints vivid brushstrokes of horror within the narrative, but that’s for you to see rather than for me to break down). Nathan’s intentions are a tightly wrapped mystery here. Every time you see him onscreen, you’re inclined to ask yourself if he’s a narcissist or a psychopath, a bad guy or a morally ambiguous character. This is interesting because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of an intelligent scientist and tech mogul.
The man works out, is an alcoholic, and is probably the most obnoxiously sexist person you’ll see in the movie. His Machiavellian behavior makes Caleb uncomfortable, and it’s easy to imply Nathan probably knows this. He’s perhaps the most fascinating character study in the film, only next to Ava. Her presence throughout the film is a ticking time-bomb; it’s rarely easy to know if she’s mirroring human vulnerability or trying only to survive, whatever it takes.
Ava’s arc is symbolic of sexism, eternal imprisonment in a societal construct, emotional (and possibly physical) abuse, the right to “human” agency, and everything else in the middle. She’s an excellent plot device driving the whole narrative, but that doesn’t devalue the fact that—somehow—she’s also the protagonist of this movie. While Caleb, the unwitting guinea pig in this situation, definitely feels more like a hero with his relative empathy and audience-surrogate perspective, Ava is the real (anti-)hero here.
The futuristic, minimalist, and cold production design gives “Ex Machina” an eerily sanitized vibe, enhancing immersion. Rob Hardy’s (“Boy A,” 2007) crisp cinematography only serves to enhance the vibe of unnerving perfection in much the same way Dariusz Wolski pulled off the look and feel of “Prometheus” (2012). This detached minimalism is also reflected in the ambient underscores of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. They whip up a soundtrack that’s focused strictly on atmosphere and tone.
Editor Mark Day (“About Time,” 2013) balances narrative structure with momentary editing like it’s no big deal, stitching it all expertly together. There’s a certain rhythm to each cut, and it’s one of the countless things about this film that make it the hypnotic gem it is.
“Ex Machina” may not be everyone’s cuppa joe, so it will be hard to know if you’ll like the film unless you’ve seen it once. However, I can say that Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi feels a lot like an Asimov novel—ironic, considering the movie actively defies Asimov’s own rules of robotics. It’s an almost seductive film that draws you in and leaves you with existential questions about humanity and who deserves the rights and feelings of being human. Easily one of the best films this year.