Ex Machina (2015)
Directed by Alex Garland
Screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later…”) had always wanted the chance to direct. A producer told him that he would have to write something good, really good, good enough that someone else would be itching to direct it…and if he could do that, he might be able to direct it himself. So he wrote “Ex Machina,” a riveting and titillating AI thriller. And what would become his directorial debut also became the most incredible film to release so far this year.
When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen in a lottery to visit the research facility/estate of his software company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), he doesn’t know entirely what to expect. Nathan runs Bluebook, which is basically what a child born of Google and Apple might look like. Nathan is Bluebook’s Steve Jobs. But when Caleb arrives, Nathan is in the middle of an aerobic detox to cure his aching hangover from the night before. He’s just a seemingly normal thirtysomething. But soon, Nathan lets Caleb in on the real purpose of his visit—to test Nathan’s newest robotic creation. The series of tests will help Nathan discover whether he has created true AI—whether Ava (Alicia Vikander), as Nathan named her, can pass for human. But as the week goes on, Caleb begins to question Nathan’s motives. And even Ava’s motives, and whether she can even have motives. His isolation is felt by the audience, and we soon realize we’re not sure how this psychological experiment will conclude.
Nathan’s ego is his biggest weakness—he’s a classic(al) tragic hero. It’s an important role for rising star Oscar Isaac, whose career thus far has been full of such big roles (in movies like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year,” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”). The Guatemalan actor is only 35 years old. He has decades to win the Oscar statuettes I’m certain he’ll retire with. As Nathan, Isaac is a bouncing ball of enigma wrapped in charisma. It’s a potent combination that Isaac delivers with precision. In the same boat is 32-year-old Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, son of Golden Globe nominee Brendan Gleeson. His resume also shows incredible range, starring with success in a rom-com (“About Time”), an odd-com (“Frank”), a war drama (“Unbroken”), and soon he’ll be alongside Isaac again in the newest “Star Wars” installment. His long-term success is inevitable. Swedish model Alicia Vikander has been in over a dozen roles, most of them overseas. But as Ava, Vikander found her breakout opportunity. Now, she has six projects lined up, all of them noteworthy. Her test was to trick audiences into thinking she’s inhuman, the opposite goal of her character. She nails it. Her mannerisms and idiosyncrasies are ideal for portraying the humanoid (but not altogether human) Ava.
On the surface, Gardner’s screenplay might seem like a familiar concept. I can assure you it’s not. His script is one of 2015’s most original concepts, even at a time when AI media abounds (AMC’s “Humans,” “Chappie,” the newest “Terminator” sequel). An intentional lack of context and characterization allows the audience to learn with Caleb. We live vicariously through him, as he grows increasingly more curious, skeptical, and paranoid. Gleeson personifies distress, and the audience feels that. You soon sense that Nathan isn’t to be trusted, that he’s hiding something from us. This allows Garland to keep you on your toes with unpredictable twists. The suspense is heavy throughout, and a lingering score certainly doesn’t help make you any calmer. Seeing it the first time, you might be distracted by this elaborate mystery, with an ending unexpected even to the most focused viewer. But to watch it again is to notice the intricacies of the plot, to see that “Ex Machina” is far more than an intense thriller, though it is certainly also that. Knowing how it ends, you can appreciate how “Ex Machina” achieves that end. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the sound Ava’s robotic body makes, even during her slightest movements. Or the set design, with a post-modern underground lair feel to it. These things now register with you. The cool factor is off the charts.
“Ex Machina” is a calculating thriller led by a cast of three of Hollywood’s brightest stars. It hooks you early and doesn’t let go. It certainly passes my test.