Though contained to the enclave of unfathomably rich tech CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Garland takes us to and through a mountain lair with many laboratories and mysterious rooms, each of them well designed to look both natural and modern. To that end the film is lit with natural light during daytime recreational bonding between Nathan and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), and flooded with pristine white and occasionally delirious red artificial light at night. Light chats along sounds of a running stream and nature for miles are as arresting as the opposing terse dialog in dense, claustrophobic rooms.
Caleb, a computer engineer at Nathan’s social media company, finds himself at Nathan’s home as a sort of prize. What Caleb has won is an opportunity to perform a Turing Test on the latest prototype of the company’s latest top secret project, Ava (Alicia Vikander); an artificially intelligent android of Nathan’s creation, harnessing the whole of our social interactions around the world. Nathan has chosen Caleb as he feels he’s finally ready to introduce his Ava to another human to see how real she seems, how humanly she behaves with a stranger.
Caleb and Ava’s sessions are recorded and monitored by Nathan. However, that doesn’t prevent Caleb from forming an attachment to the specifically designed to be clever and attractive android. In the end, Caleb finds himself in too deep with few realistic ways out.
It occurred to me maybe a day later that Ex Machina felt like watching a high level episode of British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror. It has a contained, distinct sci-fi plot that drops its main character (and the viewer) in an unknown or uncomfortable situation that may look familiar or at least plausible, and doesn’t concern itself with explaining, only with the suspense of peeling back layers as things develop.
Modern sci-fi such as these are less about crazy proclamations of how a corrupt government will ruin everything, or battles with aliens over the fate of humanity; they come off more as warnings or cautionary tales of a more tangible scary tech driven future. Garland also does well to highlight some ridiculous aspects of the modern tech world, those who embrace it, and those who would pursue it to an extreme with some humor and visual coolness, most evident in Ava — shout out
Alicia Vikander for playing the most sophisticated and nuanced replicant I could imagine.
Domhnall Gleeson is trustworthy, smart, and a bit reserved as Caleb, and is proving to be a fairly good bet in a movie. He brings some unique sci-fi experience having appeared in the excellent Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” (2013, on Netflix), starred in the very strange Frank (2014, on Netflix) with papier-mâché Michael Fassbender, and also appeared in the sci-fi Never Let Me Go (2010).
Oscar Isaac was one of my favorite actors before — I wrote about his performance in A Most Violent Year earlier this year — but his performance in Ex Machina seals it. He plays Nathan with a mix of nerve-wracking coolness, grave seriousness, and drunken mess that amount to an eccentric, strange genius. The epic disco scene is just icing on the cake and shows flashes of all of the above. Both Isaac and Gleeson will be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens due out this Christmas.
If you enjoy or are interested in Ex Machina, seek out similarly fatalistic sci-fi dramas in Never Let Me Go (2010) and Sunshine (2007), both written by Alex Garland. Though you may figure things out before they happen on screen, sometimes it’s what you do when the end is staring you in the face from a long way out that matters. Ex Machina has enough twists along the way that make for an entertaining and overall worthwhile experiment.