Alex Garland and a Stellar Cast Create a Science Fiction Mindbender for the Ages
In Ex Machina, longtime screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut, the question of artificial intelligence is unraveled further and further until we begin to question humanity itself in a dizzying display of mastery over numerous philosophical debates. This wonderful blend of mystery and drama is given free rein to dive deep into the minds of viewers, resulting in one of the smartest and most challenging science fiction films in years.
Ex Machina centers on Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer working at a major software company who wins a one-week visit to the home of mysterious CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But when he arrives, Caleb soon learns that he is there to perform a Turing Test on lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is the culmination of Nathan’s work to create true artificial intelligence. The test will prove whether or not Ava has the same true level of consciousness as a human, but a quickly forming web of deceit and doubts threaten to turn all three against one another.
While it’s clear that Ex Machina is a film with big ideas to tackle, Garland is able to explore heady philosophy in a way that thrills and engages the audience without dumbing down the concepts. As a story that plays out almost entirely in a tech-laden and claustrophobic mansion, the narrative keeps its focus lean and tight in order to drill down deeper and deeper into the issues it explores. By doing so, Garland is able to not only explore the major sci-fi concept at hand, but also delve into the ideas of male-female relationships, making it far more relevant in the ways that the best science fiction stories do. That blend of technological concepts and relationship drama keep Ex Machina relevant as theories of attraction, trust, and sexuality are all unpacked piece by piece.
As a film that only has three primary speaking roles, Ex Machina lives and dies on the strength of its central performers, but there is not a single misstep taken by Vikander, Isaac, or Gleeson. Rather, the heady conversations and layers of potential meaning behind every action give the actors the ability to dig deep within their roles. Through the multidimensional characters that they create, each member of the trio is able to craft a persona that shifts from scene to scene while remaining cohesive, each making decisions that leave audience members questioning their morality and goals.
Isaac’s Nathan has all the genius and shifting morality that many would associate with Steve Jobs, but his personality is a sharp turn from what many would expect from such a character on screen. Nathan drinks, works out, dances, and is filled to the brim with machismo, which subverts his heady technological and philosophical viewpoints. Isaac blends those elements together for a character that is subversive, hilarious, scary, and constantly unpredictable. As Caleb, Gleeson functions as the everyman, the point of entry into this story for audience members, but still works as his own character while functioning as a viewer surrogate. Caleb is forced to make numerous difficult choices throughout the film and the combination of Garland’s intricate writing and Gleeson’s genuine performance allow us to buy into why he acts in such ways, despite the frustrations that many of his actions inspire.
As Ava, Vikander dazzles through a multilayered performance that both enchants and challenges. What’s most remarkable about her performance is that there comes a point in Ex Machina where we stop being wowed by Vikander’s acting and the special effects that helped morph her on screen and simply begin to view her as Ava. The ambiguity of Ava is what so much of the film’s plot hinges on, making Vikander’s performance here even more of a tightrope walk. Should she have leaned too far one way or another, the decision concerning her artificial intelligence would have been far too simple for viewers. Rather, she crafts a fully formed character that dazzles, delights, and frustrates in all the right ways. While all three deliver fantastic performances and create unique chemistry with one another, it’s Vikander who is most remarkable due to the enormity of her task.
The power of Garland’s film is in the interpretation that is left up to the viewers. Like Caleb and Nathan, the audience is actively participating in the Turing Test being performed on Ava, with the results of the test and standpoint of the narrative never being completely spelled out. Instead, the vagaries and lingering questions make us participate in the debates held between Caleb and Nathan. As such, philosophical debates that could become dry in the hands of a lesser team are instead insanely captivating. Just as importantly, the ambiguities concerning Ava mean that greater meaning can be pulled from the film, including many questions concerning humanity that can be directly applied to its male human characters rather than female AI.
But if that all sounds dour and dark, there are numerous moments of levity to be found throughout Ex Machina. This is also a film that knows just when to subvert expectations, whether that’s through actions that make you rethink character motivations, genuine laughs, or a sudden change of pace that pulls the rug out from under the audience. The best of these comes in the form of a sudden dance sequence, which is startlingly funny and exhilarating thanks to its inherent weirdness. Yet it fits in so perfectly within the film’s ideas as to not take the viewer out of the film or release its growing sense of dread, but rather uses sudden and strange comedy to utterly disarm the viewer. It’ a brilliant piece that shows how in control Garland is of the narrative, and thanks to that tone and the sheer goofy genius of seeing Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuna as mute robot servant Kyoko dance their hearts out, it’s among the best scenes in recent film.
It’s all part of the heady web that is weaved within Ex Machina, which pulls you in deeper and deeper, allowing you to buy into the central concept in order to fully engage with its core philosophy. That exquisite execution of science fiction ideas that have been explored before means that Garland makes Ex Machinainto a film that quickly joins the pantheon of intelligent and challenging sci-fi. It’s one that will be watched again and again, burrowing its way into your mind further and further.