Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander
Ava is a robot with exceptional artificial intelligence. She is beautiful, intelligent, emotional, affected, and curious. She is also the trapped subject of scientific analysis, the caged bird that when released will change everything about the world that we know. Good science fiction always asks difficult questions, most of the time without an easy to explain answer. While the structure of science fiction films can become overwhelmed by special effects and unnecessary spectacle, these films are still completely amusing in ways that similar films, like action films, are not. It’s the fascination with theory and how well a sci-fi film can support a hypothesis. Director Alex Garland builds a methodical structure with an intelligent narrative, one that focuses on relationships between men and women, the advancing world and how it connects with progressing technology, and the trappings and limitations of science. “Ex Machina” is a welcome addition to the list of exceptional science fiction films.
Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a reclusive mogul who invented the world’s foremost search engine. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer who wins an invitation to meet and work with Nathan on his private research compound. After being dropped off by a helicopter and venturing through a forest, Caleb arrives at a door and is greeted by a computer. Once inside Caleb meets with the egocentric Nathan who discusses all aspects of science, religion, and art with Caleb. These discussions are all in preparation for Caleb to meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot whose fabricated skeleton is accommodated by a human face. Caleb is to conduct a test to determine whether he can identify Ava as a computer. Ava is intrigued by the new visitor and begins to conduct her own tests on Caleb.
Alex Garland wrote and directed the film; his measured pacing in the script shapes and molds some great scenes of tension but also surprisingly some touching emotional moments. The characters are constantly changing, affected by the people and situations around them. Whether Ava who continually learns and adapts, Caleb who is pulled into different allegiances, or Nathan who is constantly embattled by his own intelligence and isolation, Garland exhibits a keen eye for character development and utilizes all these elements to make the narrative mysterious, suspenseful, sad, and insightful. Garland also uses the characters to to ask important questions that add depth to the story but are also simply offered to spark the viewers own reasoning. It's what good writing should do.
While the film doesn’t lean on special effects, it does utilize it in nearly every scene with Ava. The composition of her robot and human attributes are outstandingly rendered and intricately constructed, this deign is also used to provide depth to the character. Ava’s body is fashioned with a metallic mesh but her face, hands, and feet are covered with skin. This allows the character to portray emotion through her face, express feelings of anger and tenderness with her hands, and show direction and motivation with her feet. It’s a well-conceived design that contributes to the ambiguous objectives that Ava presents as the film progresses. Actress Alicia Vikander gives a confident and sensitive portrayal as Ava, a true breakout performance.
Oscar Isaac is terrific as the ego-driven inventor Nathan, who is always gleefully a step ahead of everyone. Isaac does the best work when Nathan’s weaknesses overcome him, moments that lead to dancing and intellectual sparing matches with Caleb and sometimes himself. Domhnall Gleeson is also good as Caleb. Whether his fanboy-like admiration of Nathan or his easily manipulated emotional attachment to Ava, Gleeson does a great job of transitioning from susceptibly trusting to questioningly suspicious.
Alex Garland, who started his career as a novelist and screenwriter, makes an impressive directorial debut. “Ex Machina” is an exceptional film on many levels, but perhaps the most admirable quality exists in the questions it proposes and the answers it allows the viewer to contemplate.
4.50 out of 5.00