Twitter Plot Summary: A very rich man invites one of his employees to his facility to test an artificial intelligence he has created.
Alex Garland takes the director’s chair for the first time, after spending many years scripting some of the best genre films released in the last 10-15 years. Ex Machina is a high concept science fiction fable, discussing the merits of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human, doing so via what is effectively a three-hander between up and comer Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.
Invited to a remote, underground facility by his boss, Caleb (Gleeson) is given the task of being the human component in the Turing Test – that is, assessing an artificial intelligence and determining if it passes for human. The facility has a very defined claustrophobic feel to it, very much emulating the contained surroundings of a submarine or even something like Hitler’s bunker.
This is all provided by Oscar Isaac’s Nathan – incidentally this was released in the same week as A Most Violent Year and it seems that all Isaac did to switch between the two characters was to transfer his beautiful coiffure from the top of his head down onto his jaw. The Hitler analogy is perhaps the most apt, as he controls every little detail in his underground empire. His vast wealth all stems from Bluebook, the web search engine he developed from scratch.
It doesn’t take long for tensions to start developing. Nathan is a control freak, an alpha male sort who drinks heavily and literally fights away his hangover with a vigorous punchbag regime. Not only that, but he has an excessive amount of surveillance and locked doors – what’s hidden behind them? Caleb is much more internal in processing his thoughts, but no less complex. Finally there’s Ava, for all intents and purposes nothing more than a young woman who has yet to see the world outside of what is nothing more than a fancy prison.
Vikander is superb as Ava, forced to convey most of her character’s emotional state through facial expressions alone due to the rest of her being mostly obscured by some top notch CGI. It’s so good in fact that it barely enters your mind that the mechanics of her body have been composited onto the shot in post production – obviously, this adds to your immersion into the story.
Deception is a key aspect of the character interactions. Who is lying to who? Questions are raised regarding the true nature of humanity, and whether you have to be made from flesh and blood in the first place in order to qualify as such. There’s also a potential discussion about our modern life and big organisations harvesting data from the personal profiles and search history of its users. It’s weighty stuff, but handled in such a way that it never attempts to bamboozle the audience.
It slows down a little too far in its final act, although the motivations of all three characters are well developed and it’s not clear which of them is the true manipulator until the very end. Given how solid the rest of the film is, it’s easy to forgive what is a slight misstep in the grand scheme of things. It’s a solid opening effort from Garland, and on the strength of this film alone he stands to be a director to keep an eye on.