Review: Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina' a Flawless, Cautionary, Sci-Fi Tale
by Jeremy Kirk
April 24, 2015
It really will be a terrifying end to the world it when artificially intelligent machines choose to rise up and take us over. Until that day, though, we'll have to make due with films like Ex Machina to keep us up late at night staring at our computer while wondering, "Is it watching me back?" Alex Garland, screenwriter of some of the best modern sci-fi has to offer, makes his directorial debut with this terrifying, futuristic thriller that puts the fear of A.I. into you in ways you never even imagined. Intelligent, sleek, and with a small, thermal charge of a cast, Ex Machina is a can't-miss, future classic work of science fiction.
That small, thermal charge of a cast begins with Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a computer programmer for a social networking site - the future's hottest social, networking site, mind you - who wins a trip to the secluded home of his boss, Nathan, a programming genius played by Oscar Isaac. Nathan is immediately charming, throwing brews and backslaps Caleb's way from all sides. The reason for Caleb's visit comes soon enough, though, in the form of a non-disclosure agreement and then an explanation from Nathan that he has solved the A.I. problem and has created artificial life.
Ava, Nathan's first A.I. played by Alicia Vikander, is an android with transparent torso, fiber-optic limbs, and a head on which a woman's face is grafted. Caleb's job while there is to conduct the Turing test on Ava, the test designed to determine if a human is conversing with another human or a machine. Caleb begins his sessions with Ava, Nathan watching via camera, and the story quickly begins taking some surprising turns.
Garland's screenplays have included a much more visceral attitude than is on display with his latest. Ex Machina isn't relentlessly terrifying like 28 Days Later… or as pulsing with cool badassery like Dredd. Those films, along with other Garland-written works like Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, represent a nice spectrum of science fiction styles. To his credit, which Garland absolutely deserves and should demand, as different as they all are, each screenplay delivers flawless visions of science fiction. All are incredible narratives of our possible future and the connection that links us from here to there.
Ex Machina is more Hitchcockian thriller than anything Garland has presented before. Once again, his writing shows a true gift for the genre, an effortless, continual drive towards twisting the proverbial dagger in the audience's back. As Caleb conducts his tests on Ava he begins to realize the predicament in which he's been put, and, just like a gifted chef, Garland doesn't let the water come to a full boil until the frog is cooked.
Garland chooses a minimalist style for his debut effort, the hallways and rooms of the isolated house uncluttered and hard-surfaced. It'd be a cool house if it weren't so cold, but Garland's choices in Ex Machina's chic, visual style match the icy chill of his screenplay to a tee. He doesn't allow things to warm up until the scene when Nathan's dance floor warms up, and, with Oscar Isaac's moves, it's enough to break the ice a little. Garland mixes the tension of his screenplay with a small but effective dose of genuine humor, just the right amount to lull you into a sense of comfort before it reaches back around and twists that knife you didn't even realized was there.
The cast can be thanked for that, as well, each of them playing their respective, believable roles with suitable force. Gleeson is the sweet innocent, Isaac the charming, billionaire genius, and they both sell the more stunning revelations thrown out in Ex Machina with appropriate reaction. Vikander, in turn, makes every part of Ava believable, both the artificial side and the intelligence side. Sure, there's a built-in subtlety that needs to come from the character, and Vikander's soft but deliberate movement gives Ava all the realism the film needs.
The entire film is believable, and Ex Machina succeeds where examples of great science fiction always succeed. In the guise of a slow-burn thriller, Garland has possibly crafted the ultimate cautionary tale of A.I. and the danger that comes from achieving that reality. Garland's film blends science fiction and science fact, and the closer Ex Machina moves to the latter the more terrifying it's ideas and implications become. Hopefully in the distant future, when they're scrolling through the cultural works the human race once held in such high regard, our cybernetic overlords will come across Ex Machina, and they'll understand two things: we knew we shouldn't have opened Pandora's box and, man, that Oscar Isaac sure can dance.