A24 presents a film written and directed by Alex Garland. Produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich. Photographed by Rob Hardy. Music by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow. Edited by Mark Day. Production designed by Mark Digby. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno.
A programmer for the world’s most successful internet search engine wins an employee contest. He’s whisked away via helicopter to his employer’s state-of-the-art hideaway in Iceland. He will spend a week there, but this is not a simple retreat. His boss, a brilliant but off-kilter billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), explains to him that he has successfully created an artificial intelligence, and that the younger man, Caleb (Domnahl Glesason) is there to administer the Turing Test, which is meant to confirm whether or not a subject demonstrates true consciousness. When he goes to meet the robot, however, he finds not a dull boxlike machine but a luminous young woman named Ava (Alica Vikander), who is demure and gentle but also seems to hold important secrets. And so Caleb questions Ava, while Nathan watches them both obsessively on video monitors, and it some becomes difficult to truly be certain who is testing whom, and for what reason.
This is the simple but intriguing setup of Ex Machina, a new film written and directed by Alex Garland that, like much great science fiction, is more about ideas than special effects. There are effects in it, and they are breathtaking (the design of Ava is a face plus fleshy extremities tied together with sleek, gray, naked infrastructure). And the visuals, powered by Garland’s surefooted first-time direction and Rob Hardy’s cinematography are arresting, especially in the way they juxtapose the compound’s nature-and-glass top floor with its Kubrick-like, claustrophobic interiors. But that all powers the movie’s “hard” sci-fi ambitions: to ask big questions about some very relevant concepts, not even limited to “just” the topic of artificial intelligence. It smuggles in some pretty damning social commentary. It’s consistently thoughtful, darkly funny, deceptively tender, often profound and sometimes just plain profoundly creepy.
This is a movie about men, and has some ugly things to say. Isaac’s Nathan, a genius who clearly seems to have issues, is a delicate balancing act, a Dr. Frankenstein reimagined as a misogynist “bro.” The pride he takes in his creation is half genuine thrill at a scientific breakthrough, and half giddy disbelief that he’s getting away with keeping a woman locked in his basement. When he asks Caleb to dispense with the tech talk and say how she makes him feel, it’s clear what he’s asking. “Why did you give her sexuality?” Caleb asks, and Nathan’s answer is persuasively philosophical…but he really seems to savor describing just how anatomically correct she is. He personifies the movie’s central paradox: if Ava does have consciousness, than what he’s done to her and what he will do are both unspeakably cruel. Isaac, who has been in plenty of movies but deserves to be a movie star, finds just the right note for this complicated man. Caleb humors the guy’s eccentrities but reaches a limit, and Gleeson’s performance is crucial. He’s shy, socially inelegant, lonely and romantic, but he uses those traits to shield himself from his own nastier bedrock of flaws. He stands apart from Nathan, but not as much as he thinks he does.
The star-making role, however, is Vikander as Ava, who instantly claims a spot on the hierarchy of great movie robots. Ava is a fascinating enigma, one who smiles for the cameras and seems to genuinely like, in her trembled way, the nice young man who comes to ask her questions. But she worries about her future and her freedom, and during cyclical power outages she breathlessly warns that Nathan is not to be trusted. She seems correct about that, and her childlike innocence is disarming, but it’s possible to take significant issue with the way Caleb seems to fall in love with her, with reasons that include but do not stop at moral ones. Vikander’s effortlessly calculated performance is an onion that is still unraveling after the film ends, as we unpack every scene again with a different perspective.
This is some truly great science fiction. Ex Machina draws these strands together in a thrilling and infinitely compelling manner, and if it arrives at one inescapable conclusion, it’s that sometimes we’re positive what another individual is thinking, and maybe at the very least we shouldn’t be so sure.