Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, brings thoughtful, provocative ideas back to the science fiction genre. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery rewarding him with a week long visit to the secluded estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the brilliant founder and CEO of a gigantic Google-esque company. Upon arrival (requiring a helicopter ride and several miles of on foot hiking) Caleb is tasked with testing Nathan’s latest experiment: an AI by the name of Ava. Thus begins a nearly two hour stylish cinematic think-piece that loudly proclaims Alex Garland as a name to look out for.
Although Garland is no stranger to writing screenplays (his credits include 28 Days Later and Sunshine), the strong script Ex Machina boasts remains remarkable. The film is methodically paced, and yet the existential dialogue, typically taking the form of highly intelligent banter between Isaac and Gleeson, gives the brain a constant workout. Ex Machina is just that – a film that still believes in science fiction as a genre of thought and ideas – a workout for the mind. Not only are the conversations between Ava (a superb Alicia Vikander) and Caleb, as they get a feel for one another, existentially compelling, it is all backed by a clever mystery, and cloaked in an unshakeable sense of inevitability. Much of this mystery is thanks to Oscar Isaac’s outstanding performance. Every line of perfectly written dialogue is dripping with a threatening wryness, and he balances the edge between friendliness and menace spectacularly. He is equally convincing as a masculine bro and a genius coder. It is a hilarious and intriguing performance, although Vikander obviously steals the show. Similar to Isaac, her turn is a balancing act; but she balances humanity with an unknown quality, and gives off a sense of being undefinable, thanks in part to the monotony of her performance. She showcases her range in her lack of range. It works.
As superbly written as the film is, Garland is not to be outdone by his own script. Provocatively stylish and imbued with striking imagery, Ex Machina is as visually compelling as it is textually, with composer Geoff Barrow’s mood-fitting score only adding to the mental workout. Characters are often shot through glass, reflections are every where, and nothing is as it seems. Occasionally a bit heavy handed (the visual juxtaposition of nature and technology as a theme is perhaps a bit too overt), Ex Machina is nonetheless brimming with more intelligent visuals than most of what you’ll see this year. Garland stays emotionally detached, aside from several moments of genuine humor (and horror), demanding that the audience watch, observe, think.
The ending, which stands as the cherry on top of Garland’s phenomenal script, is an explosion of questions. Where should our sympathies lie? Where do our sympathies lie? Is this a horror movie? If it is, due to its clinical, actively technical, and detached nature, the horror of Ex Machina does not lie in its gut-punch visceral thrills, but in its ideas, questions, and chilling answers.