What’s often so beautiful about great science fiction is the harmony created between familiarity and alienation. Screenwriter Alex Garland’s (28 Days Later) directorial debut Ex Machina compounds this balance with astoundingly confident ease. He crafted deftly impacting original feature that’s among its genre’s best in years.
Humble programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is awarded the prestigious honor to spend a week’s time with his reclusive mega-boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a young Steve Jobs-type who invented Bluebook, this universe’s mix of Google and Apple. Flown via helicopter to his isolated, high-tech quarters, Caleb soon sees the cutting edge of modern technology when Nathan unveils his A.I. prototype Ava (Alicia Vikander).
A humanoid android with a living sense of curiosity and sexual impulse, among other personality traits, she serves as a Turning test for Caleb for Nathan to process if his creation can develop beyond its machine roots. As the week continues, the lines of decency and, of course, mortality are called into question for Caleb, and those around him may be more an enemy to him than ally.
Ex Machina has an impeccable grace in how it mimics the mix of calculation and gentle intuition that haunts its characters’ personas. Even when it feels forced in its narrative, Garland’s assurance and hyper-intelligent screenplay give his movie more intellectual stimulation. For that matter, the screenwriter-turned-filmmaker is among the few in his field who has an equally keen visual sense alongside high-minded ideals. Sight metaphors integrate seamlessly, or near to it, into the story, and only compliment the ponderous film at hand as they come more readily.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy provides Ex Machina with a keen technical perfusion and hyper-realized gravitas, but still gives each visual an unflinching and deeply mantled underbelly with is uncompromising in how well it’s pronounced. Additionally, art direction from Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg are supremely stunning in how they design this integrated, tech-suave world, yet still make it feel palpable.
There’s a defining THX 1138 vibe to Garland’s film, and it wouldn’t be surprising if George Lucas’ directorial debut provided some inspiration for this other directorial introduction. The use of location and on-screen distinction is haunting and continuously gorgeous, and through Garland’s vision, they create a distinctly encompassed work which earns its grand-headed mentality.
The primary shortcomings of this film, though, often come from occasionally overstretched plausibility in the script. These said details, which often come around the third act, may seem minor. However, they’re glaring enough that they need the audience to overlook what’s possible and most likely to actually happen, given the circumstance of events. Ex Machina is one of Garland’s best screenplays to date, if not his best, and the level of thought and care put into the overall story and its themes make these small bumps more enunciated.
Additionally, Caleb’s arc feels a tad too swift, especially given the time spent. The character is intentionally a bit one-note, so as to be an avatar for our understanding of the situation and this surreal world. Perhaps the believability in how much time Garland allowed his protagonist’s visit also shot him in the foot when he tried to make an understandable change in his personal feelings. It’s not implausible as much it feels unnatural when it should feel genuine. The overarching logic is sound enough, however, and that’s ultimately the most important factor.
Also an aid here is the unusual but interesting chemistry between Gleeson and Vikander. They compound tension and engagement in how they come to terms with each other, and they learn more about themselves through each other in a believable way. That’s simply good writing. Vikander’s performance, in particular, is impressive in how she provides a mix of robotic and quiet transformation in fine fashion. She makes her character more impressively subdued. But it’s never less than heart wrenching or invigorating, especially as Ex Machina continues onward.
When talking about Vikander’s Ava, however, it would be unjust to dismiss the phenomenal special effects helping to bring her character to life. While this doesn’t, or shouldn’t, dismiss the actress’ compelling work, it is such a vital part of her character. However, it’s the rare VFX adding to the story without getting in the way of the character’s growth or their narrative progression. The effects look natural and unique, and make Ex Machina all the more riveting.
Garland, if this movie truly demonstrates his talents and range, is a poised, intellectual filmmaker who only will grow in time. He’s thoughtful without slowing down his picture, he’s competent in how he lays out his story, and understands deeply the power of character, location and emotions in relation to his story in very commendable manners. Anchored with graceful performances and breathtaking visuals, Ex Machina is unquestionably among the year’s most compelling features, and perhaps one of its best.