When Anna Karenina was released, I remember falling for Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander’s storyline as two wayward lovers. Who knew that they’d become such breakout stars by 2015?
Caleb (Gleeson) is recruited to go and spend a week with the inventor of the biggest search engine in the world for a project built on secrecy. He meets the enigmatic Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in his mountainside mansion where he’s told he has been recruited to perform Turing tests on Ava (Vikander) a new A.I. that Nathan has created. To give away any more of the plot would be a disservice to anyone who has yet to see the film. The secrecy, the character layers and the chilling build up creates a particular atmosphere full of dread that’s too immersive to spoil.
Ex Machina deserves time and attention that far outreaches this review, as exemplified by the numerous think-pieces already populating the internet. It is a pounding psychological thriller that plants its seeds of doubt from its opening cues and builds to a tremendously affecting crescendo. It comes as a surprise that this is Alex Garland’s first time around in the directors seat. There is a sure-footed pacing to the film that should be enviable to any director. He sets the premise and doesn’t hold back to diving headfirst into the narrative while also delivering imagery that’s impressive with a lower budget. Ava’s design is gorgeous with a mix of practical and special effects. The landscape provides a wonderful allegory for the isolation of the characters, surrounded by nature while being committed to technology and the next level of humanity. It helps that it’s Garland’s best script to date, offering up his strongest third act.
The cast is uniformly good with Gleeson being a likeable point of entry for the story and Vikander playing multiple emotions on her face at a given moment but it is Isaac that once again becomes the focal point of attention in the film. Nathan could have very easily been a one note character; a villainous, aloof genius trope but instead Isaac instills the character with enough charm and enough almost childish mannerisms that he becomes the most intriguing character in the film. Isaac is one of the most (if not the most) reliable actors of the past few years and he continues to impress with his versatility. With three of the most interesting stars on your roster it’s not a bad place to start.
It’s the omnipresent theme of female agency that took this science fiction story about artificial intelligence and the follies of man and took it to the next level where it thrived. Man versus machine, man versus A.I. isn’t a new topic to science fiction and has been one of the cornerstones of the genre for about as long as the genre has existed. Ex Machina is the first that plants us straight into the idea of the female perspective and how even when they’re machines modeled as women, with a females conscious, they’re treated the same. Flesh and blood and artificial intelligence is one and the same. The movie is about how a man see’s these female consciousness as things he can create, criticize, have sex with and then destroy all for his gain or immediate pleasure. Ex Machina allows its character Ava to turn on the delicate charm and to use what Nathan instilled in her to her advantage. Sure, Ava is in a vulnerable position, but she isn’t a vulnerable character or simply a face for male ideologies to be projected onto. She is her own unique individual who is built into the same patriarchal world where we all reside.
“What will happen to me if I don’t pass your test?” is an ominous question and deeply layered with curiosity, fear and resentment.
Ex Machina is a remarkable film that boasts a talented cast, a confident director and an insightful script that plays out like theater more than science fiction. Garland and co. have created a film that is dialogue heavy without being overly verbose, that is philosophical without coming off as pretentious and that turns the artificial intelligence storyline on it’s head. Already ranking as one of the best films I’ve seen this year, it’s going to be a tough sell for any other sci-fi to beat it out as the best of it’s genre this year.
Yes, even you Star Wars.
Ex Machina is out now and there is no real reason why you shouldn’t see it.