Of all the pervasive ingenuity that comprises writer Alex Garland’s first credited directorial feature, little of it quite tops the brilliance of the film’s title, “Ex Machina,” which borrows itself directly from the Greek calque, Deus ex Machina, or “God from the machine.” Popularized to mean a plot device whereby a totally exterior or previously undisclosed force appears to solve a seemingly irreparable problem, the Garland “Ex Machina” is the narrative antithesis of that, putting forth weighty thematic propositions, provocative concepts, and organically navigating its way to a couple of twists that serve to enhance the storyline rather than totally dismantling it.
In fewer words: This is very, very good science fiction.
Coming from the scribe of many beloved extensions of the science fiction genre – “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “Dredd” – Garland’s finest hour in the malleable genre pits gender politics opposite Promethean hubris, fuses prison-break with high-tech noir, and unpretentiously defends Pollockian expressionism as a beautiful representation of the automatic being. It’s also a striking and unquestionably assured, almost stage-like, triple-hander between actors Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and the revelatory Alicia Vikander who engage in a frighteningly contemporary version of the Turing test, the constantly fluctuating parameters of which are precisely designed by the inspired Alex Garland. Like the best of its genre’s predecessors, “Ex Machina” does not live up to the root of its title by definition; instead it respects its internal logic and marches toward a conclusion that is palatable not because of safety, but because of certainty and conviction. This is science fiction at its most pure.
Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a staff coder for a search engine called Blue Book, who wins a company contest to spend a week at the research facility of the search engine’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When Caleb arrives – eyes wide, mouth agape, helicoptered into the isolated mountain retreat – he’s issued a strict access key card and introduced to his candid employer, who is midway through his morning exercise routine to fight off a raging hangover. Seemingly insecure with his surroundings, Caleb is instantly jostled by Nathan. Inch by inch, Nathan cryptically lets Caleb on to what his purpose here is, but it’s obvious that this is going to be the way it stays throughout. Guided into the gallows of the facility to his quarters – which is basically a postmodern motel room – Nathan hands Caleb a non-disclosure contract, which spooks his guest. But Caleb is given an ultimatum: Sign the contract, and the fun begins, skip out on it and witnessing the future before the rest of the world goes back to being a dream. Of course, Caleb’s trepidation subsides and he signs himself into the immediate future.
Nathan wants Caleb to be the first outside participant in a self-designed Turing test, which is, in general, an insanely difficult test for sentience within artificial intelligence. At one point, Caleb mentions a chess computer to exemplify the test’s fundamental flaw, which is that a manufactured being expressing remarkable intelligence in a one-on-one situation does not correlate with sentience; the chess computer will beat you, but it will never transcend it’s “chess computer” designation. Plus, it’s hard to deem a computer alive when you know that it’s a computer. In Nathan’s ‘post-Turing test’ Turing test, however, the A.I. in question is never hidden nor is it standard; instead it’s a female robot of his creation, named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s task is to ‘test’ Ava and then report to Nathan if he believes that she has achieved sentience, or can be considered human. If this is so, then she has passed the test. Caleb is simultaneously overjoyed and terrified, sensing a certain uneasiness about Nathan that he, like us, can’t seem to place, but the minute he meets Ava, the trio embark on an incredible evaluation of emotional stimuli and what it means to be human.
Garland handles this exposition with great care, laying out all of the storytelling tools clearly, yet openly. There is no doubt that the story is going to progress unexpectedly, but how the writer-director steers the narrative keeps an eyebrow firmly raised. It’s a methodically paced and an amazingly chiseled slow-burner, but it’s always building toward another suggestion, rather than another misdirection. There are a couple of surprises, yet none of them are rug pulls, and they’re usually bookended by fainter ‘twists,’ or surges in the plot, that are apparent if you’re paying attention but I wouldn’t go as far to say that they’re obvious. Everything in this movie is suggestive, which expands it into a product that I’m not even sure Garland realizes is so tantalizing. It’s so excitingly layered that I have no doubt people will be discussing and ultimately writing about this film for many years to come.
The beauty of science fiction is how potent symbolism and interpretation have an almost Venn Diagram-relationship, and Garland infuses enough tidbits and indicators from various genre extensions that his newest “science fiction” film ends up being an inventive conflation of allusions and signifiers. It’s easy to comprehend how viewers could walk away from “Ex Machina” believing it stands for any number of things. For instance, I, like friends of mine who I’ve discussed the film with, have noted its noir-ish qualities including the character of Ava as a central femme fatale. The notions are assuredly present, and if one were to compare the character with, say, Rachael from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” it definitely wouldn’t seem like a stretch nor a disingenuous comparison. To Garland, however, that’s defiantly not the case.
When I spoke to him about the film earlier this week, he denied the noir implications, labeling them as “something I had brought to the narrative” and refurnished his picture with baggage of his own then countering it as prison-break movie. Stunned, but no less fascinated, I listened to the director’s description of his own film, and while I would never go back on my belief that the film contains certain noir aspects, the filmmaker is quite right. It is definitely a prison-break movie and actually even more so than it is a futuristic neo-noir, like “Blade Runner.” Sustained into a single location, “Ex Machina” rarely ventures into the surrounding landscape, which purposes well over 90% of the film inside Nathan’s research department. Phenomenally designed by Mark Digby, the extraordinary geometric designs that confine Ava in her underground cell are only ever breached by the emergence of Caleb – separated behind glass like it’s visiting hours – or the surfacing of Nathan who oversees the proceedings like a power-hungry jailer. Garland and Digby’s decade-plus partnership really comes to light in Rob Hardy’s cinematography, which is smooth and alluring, fabulously uniting the previous artists’ awareness of space and economy. There’re also transfixing changes from within the action to observing it; everybody at some point finds themselves glimpsed at on a computer monitor, like lab rats loose in a carefully devised maze. This all becomes more engrossing due to the riffs and grooves of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salibury’s original score, which echoes the pulsating vibes of Trent Reznor’s collaborations with David Fincher. Of course, this designing-shooting-directing triumvirate is bettered by the fact that they are working from Garland’s phenomenal script – arguably his finest – and they stand opposite an even more astounding trio of actors who come to reflect the great work done by everybody on the technical side in the performances they deliver.
My previous experiences with the three leads have been varied: I’m an enormous fan of Isaac, I’ve somewhat enjoyed the few Gleeson performances I’ve seen, and Vikander is a brand new face. Here, the three stand mostly on an even keel, with Vikander leaving the greatest impression. There’s no other way to say this, but the young Swedish actress absolutely blindsided me. She’s the epicenter of this film in many ways and she carries it with power and finesse. She’s got a gorgeous figure and a stunning face, which is deliberately emphasized in her innovative appearance (the VFX here are outstanding, by the way) and come to be a great benefit in her crafty performance. Personifying some of the film’s heftier themes, Vikander’s Ava is a terrific creation and she takes the concept to new lengths; truthfully, the film almost lives or dies on her performance and she’s just extraordinary. Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac is a scene-stealer here, but in the most respectful way. After years of carefully brightening the spotlight on his stardom, and delivering two of the most award-worthy performances (though neither of them were rewarded) of the past couple of years, he’s again defied expectations and turns in an incomparable, totally unexpected performance. Most of the film’s humor – and there’s a lot – rests with Isaac and he turns every dry line into a homerun. Lastly, Gleeson is fine for the most part, but retroactively is actually pretty terrific. He seems out of his league for close the entirety of the film, but his unassuming and buttoned-down personality is entirely deliberate, and it helps a great deal with Garland’s enthralling narrative trajectory. Undoubtedly an actor’s film, “Ex Machina” is one to see for these three upcoming stars, who in a couple of months will see their recognition catapulted to new heights (Vikander will next star opposite Eddie Redmayne in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” while both Isaac and Gleeson have “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” hitting theaters this Christmas).
I’ve glimpsed some excerpts from other reviewers who have been digging so deeply into this film from enough analytical angles it’d probably make George Orwell giddy. I’ve had thoughts racing around my head since I saw the film over a week ago, hoping I’d land on an angle myself, and maybe that angle would be cemented after I got to speak to Garland, certain that he’d shed some necessary light on his fantastic feature. The truth of the matter is that I desperately need to see this film again, and that only underscores how bound this film is to be of a classic regard, up there with the works of Lang, Kubrick, and Scott. Garland has written strong work before, but what him and his team have created here should eventually be used as a benchmark for forthcoming films that strike a similar chord. This is a film that I cannot wait to revisit over and over again; rare science fiction is a treat, and Garland has reached a deified stature like contemporaries Rian Johnson and Jonathan Glazer, both of whom have rectified the genre and proved that its potentials are still numerous. If there were a test that can prove if this film will have a long-standing life of acclaim, there’s no doubt that it would pass.
Review by Mike Murphy
“Ex Machina” is now playing in theaters nationwide.