Silver Screen: Ex Machina ***1/2
Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi mystery Ex Machina is a movie of small spaces and big ideas. Its grand ambitions are contained within a cloistered set, mostly a handful of gleaming, sterile rooms, and its pontifications about the infinite possibilities of emergent technology take place between just three characters. But for its handsome, subtly integrated special effects, it could easily be a talky stage play.
The setting is a kind of luxury fortress so isolated it can only be accessed by helicopter. It’s here that inventor and programming genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has retreated after amassing a fortune from the popular search engine he designed at age thirteen. Two decades later he’s treading the blurry line between total self-actualization and reclusive insanity. Buzz-cut, bearded, gym-puffed Nathan is Howard Hughes, Doctor Frankenstein, and Steve Jobs consolidated into Billionaire Visionary 2.0.
Precocious but naive programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is thrilled when he wins a contest that allows him to spend a week working with Nathan at his secluded retreat. Starstruck Caleb is easily charmed by his domineering host, who cajoles him into signing a non-disclosure agreement and gives him the illusion of free reign over a house that still has an awful lot of locked doors. The imbalance in their relationship, alone together here on Nathan’s custom-made turf, is ominous even before the big new project is revealed.
Nathan has brought Caleb to his house to beta test his latest invention, an artificially intelligent being named Ava (Alicia Vikander). She— and Ava is most definitely a she— is both convincingly humanoid and overly mechanized, with a perfectly articulated human face but a translucent stomach and arms that reveal the cables and circuits and metal bones that make up her body.
Caleb’s task is to spend a week interacting with Ava to determine whether or not Nathan has successfully replicated consciousness. As Caleb conducts his investigation, he begins to suspect Nathan has a grander experiment in mind. He’s also disturbed by the single spiderwebbed crack in the shatterproof glass that separates him from Ava, and obsessed with the question of what lies behind all Nathan’s locked doors.
Ex Machina is the directorial debut of author Alex Garland, who has worked in disparate corners of sci-fi. He wrote Twenty-eight Days Later... and the 2001-inspired Sunshine, both for director Danny Boyle, adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary take on cloning with Never Let Me Go, and penned the screenplay for the futuristic comic-book shoot ‘em up Dredd.
Ex Machina plays like Stanley Kubrick by way of Neil LaBute. It’s heady, but also rooted in intimate, unseemly interpersonal conflicts. It’s a handsome movie, too, with a crisp, clean aesthetic that’s all polished surfaces and sharp corners. The movie, like the house itself, is like a manifestation of Nathan’s mind: state of the art, immaculately tended, and quietly humming with the sound of some terror just out of sight.
Nathan’s pathology isn’t exactly understated, but Garland does a nice job of laying on extra layers of warped psychology. Caleb is complicit, too. It’s no mistake that Ava is highly feminized, as played by the icy Swedish beauty Vikander. Her almost otherworldly prettiness makes her artificiality eerily convincing. But what does it mean for two men, working atop a male-dominated field, to conduct experiments on a captive woman that one of them can program to do whatever he wants? Garland explores the toxic misogyny of the situation without overplaying his hand, enough that he contorts it into a sly feminist tract as it moves into thriller territory.
Alas, Ex Machina fares better with sci-fi head-scratching than outright suspense. Garland spends so much time building the atmosphere that the climax is both overheated and underwhelming. Though it’s rarely boring, Ex Machina feels stretched a little thin at an hour and forty-five minutes. It would make perfect fodder for an hour-long episode of the BBC’s Black Mirror. As a feature film it’s consistently admirable but only fitfully enjoyable.
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