by: S. Scott Stanikmas
Science Fiction movies are a tough genre to pin down. Ask five different people and you could get five different answers as to what constitutes a Sci-Fi film. It could be a movie about a dystopian future society on Earth, an out-of-this-world space adventure or a superhero epic. But Ex Machina is none of these things. In his directorial debut, Alex Garland has created something that almost defies a label, crafting a brilliant and cerebral story that puts the focus on characters and science rather than spaceships and men in mechanical suits.
Ex Machina wastes no time getting started, introducing us to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a code writer for a tech company that’s one part Facebook, one part Google. Caleb is announced as the winner of an employee lottery and before we know it he’s being whisked away like Charlie Bucket to the secretive home of company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) for some kind of week-long retreat.
Once the introductions are made Caleb finds out that he’s been brought away from work to perform a version of the “Turing Test” (to see if computers can replicate human responses) on Nathan’s latest project, the extremely advanced humanoid A.I. known as Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the next seven days, Caleb’s testing will decide the fate of Ava and whether or not Nathan’s greatest experiment – the creation of true artificial intelligence – has succeeded or failed.
I don’t think I’ve seen a more ambitious movie done on such a low-key level, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The fact that this whole movie essentially takes place in one house – and on top of that just a few rooms in the house, really – is crazy. It’s very enclosed and guarded but never once did it feel small or claustrophobic.
The fact that only three actors carried this entire film is astounding. This trio managed to creat great tension and strife, keeping me guessing about everyone’s true motivations until the very end. I especially enjoyed Gleeson as the wide-eyed and innocent newcomer to the twisted household, becoming the rope in a mental game of tug-of-war waged between by this new-age Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Isaac’s smug and sometimes condescending attitude was a polar opposite to Vikander’s beguiling (yet somehow almost disingenuous) innocence.
Alex Garland has always been an innovative writer. He reinvented the zombie genre with 28 Days Later, gave us the breathtaking interstellar epic Sunshine and breathed new life into the 2000 A.D. comic book character Dredd. With Ex Machina though, Garland can finally show us that he can bring it visually as well as verbally. While he espouses that filmmaking is a collaborative effort between the entire crew, this is truly the director’s show where he proves that not only does he have a sharp mind for story and dialogue but an eye for visual storytelling as well.
Garland manages to balance the visuals of the film from the cold of Nathan’s fortress-like home/research facility with scenes of the lush grounds surrounding the home. It made the film feel less confined and also showed great contrast between the living and the mechanical (with the boys going out for the occasional jaunt into the wilderness to stretch their legs and relieve tension while Ava is imprisoned, like Hannibal Lector, in the same room). The film sets the audience as the fourth main character, a voyeur, starting with how we first see Caleb through his computer screen for the opening moments, to seeing how the human components of the film felt the need to endlessly watch the going-on of the house through a CCTV feed.
With Ex Machina, Alex Garland presents some very big ideas but always manages to make the film feel grounded. From top-notch performances by the cast to the beautiful cinematography, this is a movie that will make you think and stay with you for quite some time.