Scott F. Evans
Ex Machina gets right what so many (much more expensive) sci-fi films get wrong. It doesn’t try to dazzle us with spectacle and effects. It doesn’t try to impress us with its mastery of technobabble. It doesn’t get bogged down with pompous performances. Alex Garland’s directorial debut is direct and truly thoughtful.
Garland, who is known primarily as a screenwriter, crafts yet another cautionary tale on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina could be the spiritual predecessor to The Terminator, The Matrix and every other film where A.I. runs amok. But Garland has much more on his mind than rampaging killer robots at war with humanity for world domination. He’s more interested in telling an intimate story where the stakes (while low for blockbuster standards) are actually much higher than they seem. Code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test the effectiveness of a new bit of technology he has created. The tech is Eva (Alicia Vikander), a female robot with artificial intelligence. Caleb has seven days to determine if Eva’s A.I. is advanced enough to pass as real human emotion.
The performances in Ex Machina are stellar across the board. Each one is underplayed and natural despite some tech heavy dialogue. Gleeson is our de facto lead, and he delivers the right amount of innocence without being too precious or cloying. He’s smart, but he’s also sort of a pathetic nerd. Gleeson rides it right down the middle, finding the perfect balance between the two.
Vikander is equally as good. She plays Eva with just the right amount of otherworldly quirk and detachment. Her artificiality is never an issue, as much of her circuitry and machining are on full display. Nathan hasn’t finished fully assembling her yet. But Vikander brings a nice mixture of caution and curiosity to Eva, and manages to come off equally shy and seductive.
Isaac steals this movie from the both of them. Nathan is probably insane, due no doubt to a combination of extreme wealth, isolation and alcoholism. A lesser film would have had him play it much more obvious, giving Nathan a bunch of surface eccentricities and bizarre appearance. Not here. Isaac has a strong screen presence and he pours that charisma into the character. Nathan’s a bit of an asshole, but you get the feeling that his circumstances forces him to be that way. Isaac plays him so relaxed and with such lucidity that you find yourself rooting for him.
Garland’s direction is beautifully sparse. His camera is nonintrusive. He lets the performances sell the film, and focuses on his actors instead of elaborate shot choices or jarring edits. The set design, like the film’s science, is well thought out but unobtrusive. Garland doesn’t want to distract us from the story with fanciful visuals. The effects are all fairly low key and serve the story, and his script follows suit. Although he presents big ideas that demand your attention, Garland doesn’t beat us up for not being MIT graduates. You won’t need an advanced engineering degree to enjoy Ex Machina.
The leads are all extremely smart people, but they talk or relate to one another like nerdy techno elites. Caleb is attracted to Eva’s femininity. Eva may (or may not) have a crush on Caleb. Nathan treats Eva like a daughter, and Nathan and Caleb bond over drinks and talk about women.
This is what makes Ex Machina work so well and why it stands head and shoulders above its peers. It resists the cliché. Eva has no interest in the extinction of the human race and doesn’t necessarily long to be a “real girl.” Nathan doesn’t want an army of killer robots to take over the world. Caleb isn’t the chosen hero, the only one that capable of saving us from the robot terror. As a matter of fact, there really isn’t even a hero or villain in this film. Just three individuals with exceedingly human needs and desires.
See this. Support intelligent sci-fi.