What if what we think is the right thing actually isn’t so? How far are we willing to go for a love we’re aren’t sure is real? Who do we place our faith in: a mysterious creator or the ostensibly naïve created?
These are the kinds of questions set forth by Ex Machina, an intimate yet intense thriller that combines all the elements of classic science fiction to craft a two-hour cinematic metaphor about the occasionally faulty outputs of human nature.
Writer-director Alex Garland, known for penning Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later, doesn’t leave a stone unturned as he creates a wholly original and memorable movie that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken, Frank, Harry Potter) plays Caleb, a programmer for the world’s most powerful search engine, Bluebook (sorry, Google). He wins a contest to spend a week with one of the leading thinkers of Bluebook, Nathan, and examining the tortured genius’ newest project – Ava, the world’s first artificial intelligence.
But as these tales always go, there is more than meets the eye with almost every party involved, and the film consistently has an air of mystery and dread to it that fills every scene with tension.
Much of that is attributed to Oscar Isaac’s (Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) performance of Nathan, suspicious and intriguing from the moment we meet him. Isaac adds another illustrious performance to an otherwise colorful yet overlooked career, but that should change with the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is as intellectually sound as he is drunkenly enigmatic, perfectly conveying Nathan’s sense of gaudy superiority.
Gleeson also puts in a fantastically believable turn as Caleb, with whom the audience can relate almost all the way through, with every untrustworthy conversation with Nathan and the more intimate experiences with Ava.
But she is undoubtedly the star of the show, played by the Swedish Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate, Anna Karenina). Surrounded by an aura just as mysterious and threatening as her creator, the audience is put through the same test as Caleb is to ensure that Ava can make us believe she is human, and she does. Vikander perfects a curious naiveté while seemingly knowing all there is to know about being human that we forget she is until we hear the mechanical whirring of her being when she makes even the slightest move.
From her slightest of smiles that always turn a moment too soon, to the craving in her eyes to know about the world outside Nathan’s lab, Vikander is simply incredible, overpowering and overbearing just in the way she speaks.
Like every great entry in the science fiction genre, Ex Machina has a certain self-awareness about it where the audience never feels cheated. Every piece of dialogue, every plot point is carefully constructed to form a bigger picture that is slowly revealed, and there is almost never a slow point precisely because Garland keeps us so engaged in what is happening on-screen.
In addition, he takes us on such a deep journey through each character so as to make us feel it is reality and not just science-fiction, as if we have to question their motives for our own sake. Deep philosophical questions are at play, some which are admittedly too grand to get a grasp of in a first viewing, but the film is predominantly about the struggle to differentiate between what we think we know and what we are led to believe.
It’s easy to focus on those themes, too, because the plot is so straightforward and delicate. Isolation is another key theme in Ex Machina, of both the literal and figurative kind. At times you feel like you’re peeking into a conversation or an action that you shouldn’t be, and that is a testament to Garland’s direction and the actors’ performances.
All good sci-fi also has a haunting soundtrack, and Ex Machina’s is blistering and preeminent at times, like the most macabre parts of a David Fincher movie.
The strength in Ex Machina, and what makes is so wholly original, is that it’s impossible to know what forces are really at play. Motivations are foggy and Garland is so cunning a writer that there is a never-ending stream of twists and turns conjured up, and you never see them coming because you’re so drawn in to what you think you know.
Garland is out to tear apart what preconceptions are formed in an hour and a half in the final twenty minutes, every moment of which is thrilling, poignant, and cinematically gorgeous. You never see the ultimate villain coming, and, indeed, might not even be sure who the bad guy really is, leaving it as a topic of debate in the audience’s head long after the credits have rolled.
And he does it without explosions, without warning, without conviction. Just a careful deconstruction of what we’ve seen, thinking at first that it makes no sense, only for it to come full circle once we do what the movie asks us to do: examine ourselves and our faulty superiority.
In a Nutshell
Most science fiction is content with offering up a distorted view of the world and saying it’s a metaphor for reality. But when it comes to questioning our own lives in an intimate and profound way while building up to an ending that is entirely uncommon and satisfying, Ex Machina reigns supreme.
9.5 / 10
Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Directed by Alex Garland
David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.