Ex Machina (2015) / Sci Fi-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Review published April 25, 2015
Esteemed screenwriter Alex Garland (Dredd, Sunshine) writes and directs (his first) this fascinating science fiction drama, which plays like a futuristic chamber piece about reality, fantasy, truth, manipulation, deception, humanity and lack thereof. To avoid spoilers outright, it's a difficult film to elaborate upon in a review, so my advice is to watch first, then come back. There is a certain predictability to the piece, as things do go where you might expect, but usually not quite in the manner in which you expect them to get there. Garland's script doesn't go for big reveals, but rather, a series of subtle shifts in the characters that change the dynamic of their relation to one another as they interact. Smartly written and adeptly lensed, the strengths manage to outshine the implausibility and contrivances to emerge as one of the more thought-provoking science fiction films of the year.
Set sometime in the future, Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken, Calvary) plays coding programmer Caleb Smith, an employee working for 'Blue Book', the world's most popular search engine by a long shot. He has been summoned by virtue of a contest by the company's founder, mega-billionaire Nathan Bateman (Isaac, A Most Violent Year), to his remote, high-security home/research facility in Alaska (exteriors shot mostly in rural Norway) for a week in order to help provide learned research into artificial intelligence. Caleb is soon introduced to Ava (Vikander, Seventh Son), a sleekly designed and highly advanced robot resembling a human, and he's told to spend his time testing her (a 'Turing Test') to see if she truly is self aware. With Nathan off drinking, or unable to watch due to sporadic power outages, Caleb and Ava converse about sundry topics, and while her body in clearly artificial, the man can't help but be drawn to her. But, is this part of the design, or is something more organic and unpredictable afoot?
Impeccably acted well enough to overcome the scantiness in the character nuance, with a standout graceful performance by former ballet dancer Vikander as the enigmatic Ava -- no easy feat when most of her visage is artificial. Gleeson, with an American accent, breathes a great deal of life into a role that requires absolute subtlety of emotion, though a bit of a patsy, deep down. The film is built on the notion of men trying to build the perfect woman, though the difficulties that arise when that woman doesn't really need a man, and is probably better off without him, though there may be something in the programming that steers her otherwise.
Oscar Isaac is the self-absorbed genius Nathan, perhaps too much so for another human to get on his level, which is perhaps why he is so busy trying to create his equal in intelligence and complexity with an artificial construct capable of being so much more intelligent and complex if the AI is good enough. But at what point will Ava, like Samantha in Her, evolve so far beyond what any human, even a super-intelligent one like Nathan, can touch intellectually, that the subservient lifestyle and dominion that Nathan demands upon them make sense. Like Dr. Moreau, Nathan is a self-righteous god of his own realm, but the fortified transparent walls and high levels of security around the house suggests that he's as much trying to keep his revolutionary inventions from getting out as he is prying eyes from getting in.
There are some farfetched elements that might belie that we're dealing with some of the most brilliant minds on the planet. The pass-card system employed by Nathan seems to be more trouble than it's worth, not to mention how rudimentary it is when compared to the mind-bogglingly sophisticated A.I. entity that is Ava. Couldn't Nathan have easily used facial or retina recognition to allow people to move in and out of the home or from room to room? Nathan's rampant alcoholism also seems an addition to factor into the storyline as it rolls over into plot developments, with Garland tending toward a hackneyed device in order to try to justify the most brilliant mind on Earth doing some questionably foolish things. A particularly bad montage of archived home surveillance footage seems, weirdly, edited for purposes of this movie, which makes no sense in the context, especially given that, presumably, there was no reason to keep such footage, and certainly no reason to edit it for someone to see. Also, one would surmise, given what we eventually learn about Nathan's experiences with creating androids in the past, he'd have some sort of contingency plan (or more likely, several) should he ever have to shut one down or subdue one.
I wouldn't dare reveal the ending, but it does stay with you -- a perplexing development in a challenging work. The use of not-terribly-realistic CGI during a few key moments also reduces a bit of the tension. And yet, it's the eerie atmosphere -- the enclosed, prison-like structure in the middle of the beauty of foggy mountains, that lulls you into its downbeat tempo, slowing down the rhythms so that you're not looking for intense action sequences, instead dissecting sentences in conversations to find hidden meanings, and hoping intention will register on the faces of the speakers. But when one of those speakers is not human, and does not have a face unless we put one on them, perhaps such intention and meanings become futile for a human to begin to understand.
©2015 Vince Leo