Ex Machina

Posted by Joel Copling on April 16, 2015

"Ex Machina" is some perfectly, precisely preserved thing--a work of truly original, postmodern sci-fi in an era where the backdrop is usually an effects-driven dystopia or postapocalyptic landscape--yet the experience of watching it akin to admiring that perfectly preserved thing behind frosted, forbidding glass. Director Alex Garland has crafted an exquisite visual and aural experience, working in conjuction with cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Mark Day, and a team of production, sound, and visual effects designers that are each on the top of their game. But Garland's screenplay impresses most often when it is at odds with itself: Either the film is a hypnotic build-up that uses expository dialogue as a way of defining its characters or it is paying off said build-up with a climax and denouement that keep us at arm's length from the film's cumulative effect.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has created a fully functioning, artificially intelligent being, and Caleb's (Domnhall Gleeson) job is to perform a variation of the Turing test upon the machine, whose name is Ava (Alicia Vikander in what is likely to remain the year's best performance) and whose appearance, when unaltered by prosthetic skin and dresses, is only vaguely the physiological appearance of a woman. In all other aspects, she is a fully functioning female person, though, and yes, that includes all aspects of the gender divide between her and Caleb. The problem is, she keeps hinting that Nathan isn't being entirely honest about the circumstances that brought Caleb here.

The film then becomes a sort of game. Caleb gets to spend a week at this research facility after winning some sort of contest, and upon meeting Nathan, the two strike up an amiable but uneasy acquaintance. It's as easy as it can be, given the man is quite the alcoholic, running himself straight into bed or onto a couch after a night of drinking the stuff. The facility in which he lives is a marvel of simple designs, all beige walls and glass windows and minor decor (A Pollock painting dominates one of the rooms, for instance). The questions Caleb must ask of Ava are simple, too, until she turns it around on him to explore his nature as a human.

The full explanation of how Nathan managed the feat of giving to Ava aspects like emotion and sexuality is curiously kept close to his chest in Isaac's performance, but the first hour is almost entirely exposition--setting up the rules of the interview between Caleb and Ava, explaining how Nathan came up with this amazing creation--before a final 45 minutes that tests any ideas that surround Ava's status through a relatively rudimentary escape plan that takes some unexpected turns. "Ex Machina" is a fascinating thing to examine. If we could only embrace it for the fascinating thing it is, that would be nice. We can settle in the long term, however, for detached admiration.

Film Information

Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko).

Directed and written by Alex Garland.

Rated R (graphic nudity, language, sexual references, violence).

108 minutes.

Released in select cities on April 10, 2015.