The Plot: Upon winning an employee lottery at the largest software company in the world, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, gets an all-expenses-paid visit to the isolated pseudo-futuristic home of the company’s founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Before long, Caleb realizes that his reward is far from a comfortable vacation with an eccentric billionaire. Nathan believes that he has finally cracked the challenge of creating A.I., and has summoned Caleb to fill the human component in the Turing Test to determine whether his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), has truly obtained consciousness.
Ex Machina and its robot are the perfect answer to the question that has been (I assume) plaguing the Internet for days: what would happen if you crossed Her and Age of Ultron? Obviously, the dangers of creating artificial intelligence are many and familiar, but what if instead of being James Spader, that A.I. was also sexy? Now we’re in trouble. Ex Machina has a beautifully familiar premise consisting of a likable but naïve hero, a mad scientist, his sympathetic but dangerous creation, an isolated yet expansive setting with no connection to the outside world, and everybody’s favorite, a thought-provoking promethean conundrum. In many ways, this story could have been told at any time throughout human development, just replacing A.I. with some other cultural anxiety. There are obvious unavoidable allusions to Frankenstein, and I realize that the film could have been made in the 70s with Christopher Lee or Vincent Price instead of Oscar Isaac. That’s because horror is the most enduring and consistently relevant genre. As long as humanity has fear, the genre will prevail.
Despite its horrific elements, though, and a few nerve-wracking scenes, Ex Machina skillfully avoids the temptation to commit too fully to that genre and its tropes. Had I been writing or directing, I would not have been able to resist. The setup for horror is flawlessly done; all the elements slide perfectly in place by the time the climax rolls around, so all the hard work was already done. Writer/director Alex Garland (28 Days Later…, Dredd, oddly enough) tiptoes around heart-pounding terror and opts instead for, wait for it, heart-pounding characterization.
And therein lies the key to the film’s success. Yes, this is a familiar story and yes, we have all seen it before in one form or another, but we haven’t seen it with these characters. Everyone, including and especially Ava, is perfectly realized. Like Shelley does in Frankenstein, Garland makes both creature and creator simultaneously monstrous and relatable to fully call into question our definitions of humanity. The incredible performances from Isaac and Vikander only help to develop Garland’s end game: the audience’s investment. Every good movie does this; through the power of art and entertainment, it engages the mind and allows us to get emotionally invested with people we know don’t exist. Think of the last movie that made you cry. Why was it sad? Because in the two hours you spent with the characters, for one reason or another, you grew to care about them. Using flawless characterization as a tool, Garland plays his own Turing Test on the audience. After 100 minutes I do care what happens to these people, even the robot, even the mad scientist. I know it’s not really the same thing. No movie is a sentient intellectual being; it’s fiction, but Garland suggests (several times throughout the story, occasionally explicitly) that the line between actual artificial intelligence and what the human perceives as cognition is a thin one. Is Ava actually capable of independent thought and emotion, or is she just a perfectly sculpted program designed to convince the human element of an impossibility? This approach not only manages to justify the rehash of the Frankenstein narrative, but also provides what is easily the greatest incarnation of A.I. anxiety I have seen. Take that, nuclear war, space, and communism: we have found our new concern.
Writing aside, Garland’s direction is impressive to say the least, especially considering this as his debut. He has a great eye for color and an excellent use of space. I like small, concentrated stories, and Ex Machina takes place almost entirely in Nathan’s estate with a small core cast. This is often the best way to deal with large topics and high concepts, developing a sort of microcosmic instant for an issue that would, in reality, concern the whole world. Of course, Garland is a writer first and foremost, and that idea peppers the syllabus for Screenwriting 101, so it should come as no surprise that he incorporates it so nicely into his directing style.
Taking into account the writing, the directing, the message, the art direction, the awesome special effects, and the truly mesmerizing performances, I have very little negative to say about Ex Machina. At its best, science fiction explores the possibilities of the future while commenting on the condition of the present, and if that was its primary objective, Ex Machina succeeds with flying colors. Also, just as a side note to all you scientists out there, never make sexy robots. It always ends badly and it’s just confusing for everyone involved.