If I were to tell you “Ex Machina” was a movie about artificial intelligence, your mind would most likely suspect it a traditional futuristic science-fiction flick. But “28 Days Later …” and “Dredd” screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut is anything but conventional.
“Ex Machina” wastes no time with exposition. Literally none. We meet programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he is selected for a prestigious opportunity by his employer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire founder of the world’s most popular search engine. A minute later and he is dropped off by helicopter at Nathan’s reclusive research facility where he learns that he will be the human subject in a Turing test with Nathan’s new artificially intelligent being, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
What develops is more of a psychological, intellectual and philosophical thriller than any cultish escapist science-fiction. Science, in the case of “Ex Machina,” creates a framework for high-level themes and contemplation, not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” only much smaller in scope.
The drama picks up when Ava secretly reveals to Caleb that Nathan is a bad person who is not be trusted. From there, the performances really perpetuate the suspense, namely Isaac’s confidently enigmatic Nathan and Vikander’s alluring, innocent yet poised Ava.
“Ex Machina” has a rather quiet disposition, calling much attention to Garland’s visuals. Garland shows some flashes of real talent behind the camera, but not artistic panache. Most of all, it’s his patience that gives the film its eerie, ethereal quality. As both writer and director, he trusts his own material — he knows when the story works, he believes in his the tiny cast shouldering the brunt of it and so he doesn’t need any flashy techniques (or longtime collaborator Danny Boyle) to make the film work.
Although it takes a long time to become captivating, “Ex Machina” does more than the average science-fiction entry in terms of posing big ideas. The script goes well beyond the now trite existential tropes of most films about robots and into a much more complicated examination of the human experience and the characteristics that separate humans from machines meant to replicate their appearance and behavior.
“Ex Machina” will no doubt let down those looking for a more traditional blockbuster sci-fi experience, but for the more artistic, high-brow sci-fi crowd, Garland has delivered the genre something it doesn’t see often enough.
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander