Directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a stirring and stimulating piece of science fiction dynamite. The 2015 movie was also written by the filmmaker and came from the germ of an idea he had when he was a boy. The notion took hold when Garland was working on 2012’s Dredd and sprang into the full-blooded, claustrophobic thriller that is Ex Machina.
In many ways, this is small sci-fi. The ideas are big and dangerous, of course, but the budget is on the small side and the special effects are actually rather lean. Garland insisted on shooting traditionally, in fact, and added the effects shots in post-production. That gives Ex Machina an almost defiant flexibility, which sets it apart from many other genre movies.
Domhnall Gleason is Caleb, a programmer for the world’s most popular search engine. He wins a one-week trip to the home of the company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) and could not be more thrilled. He arrives to find the bearded recluse doing a lot of drinking and carrying on. Eventually, it turns out that Nathan has been working on a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Caleb has been brought over to test Ava’s ability to pass off as a human, which is made more complicated by the moment due to the arrival of some very human feelings. Caleb has various conversations with Ava, who seems to have a will of her own. The isolated environment of Nathans pad becomes tenser by the moment, especially as Ava keeps pushing Caleb’s buttons.
While the science fiction of Ex Machina is certainly vital, Garland has crafted a film in which the relationships matter most. The first relationship to be established is that of Caleb and Nathan. They meet rather awkwardly, with Nathan pumping iron after a night of imbibing. Caleb asks him how the party was. Nathan is offended somehow. Later, the audience learns why.
This gives way to the fact that the hirsute CEO of Bluebook does a lot of boozing, which in turn gives way to the fact that Isaac’s character seems less the hip young business magnate and more the self-sequestered lonely lad with a head full of silly notions. This puts him in a long lineage of similar characters, with Shelley’s good doctor the most obvious comparison.
Caleb, on the other hand, is an excellent coder. He approaches his relationship with Garland tentatively and seems uneasy with Nathan’s demand that they behave like friends. Nevertheless, Caleb tries his best. He throws himself into the friendship with fascination, drinking and carrying on with the bearded boss. Eventually, the uneasy bonds are tested.
The second relationship that matters is between Caleb and Ava. He is astonished at how lifelike she seems, at how human she is. He sits behind glass, separated from her and her little apartment. Cameras are watching and Nathan is listening, ever the vigilant shotgun father. Caleb represents a first date for Ava, a first real opportunity to break free of the margins of Nathan’s world.
Caleb is smitten. Ava forces blackouts in the facility and reveals her true considerations to Caleb when the lights are off. She tries on a dress, wants him to take her on a date, acknowledges her fires of will. All the while, the audience sees her “bones” through the manmade mirage of her form. When she takes off her clothes, full in the knowledge that Caleb is watching, she’s removing another layer of skin.
There are other relationships, too. Nathan has a concubine of sorts in Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). She endures his Alpha Male blathering and is, like Ava, caught in a world surrounded by masculinity. At one point, she participates in an absurd dance routine with Nathan. She is his idealized femininity: subservient, incapable of “talking back,” ready for sex whenever and wherever he requires.
Garland does a tremendous job weaving these relationships together. He pins it to the science fiction foundation and delivers some dazzling but simple effects, but the core of the story is cerebral and abundantly human. The tension persists until the point of detonation and the climax is earned, even if it does carry a scene or two past necessity.
Ex Machina is resourceful, unnerving filmmaking. It is “from the machine,” yet it impels with a thumping heart that focuses on relationships rather than artificial cinematic tricks. It presents four characters locked in a glass cage of beliefs and hopes, with opportunities blinking like crosswalk lights just above the treeline.