Ex Machina is a thrilling and haunting film that comes as the result of one man’s singular, uncompromised vision.
According to a recent Grantland article, one of Alex Garland’s greatest frustrations with his film career is the compromises he was forced to make with his scripts in order to appease regular collaborators director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald. Thankfully, we don’t have to go very far to see what would result if the novelist and screenwriter was left almost completely in charge of his own production: his first directorial effort, Ex Machina arrives in theaters hot on the heels of that piece.
To his credit, Garland proves to be a fine helmsman. The 45-year-old Londoner has created a hypnotic and philosophical science fiction film that stirs up some important questions about the nature of individuality, male privilege, and Western culture’s strange, potentially dangerous relationship with technology.
Our proxy into the world Garland has created is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a meek young man who has been summoned by Nathan, the CEO of a Google-like company (Oscar Isaac), to an austere, beautifully appointed compound that is as locked down as a federal prison. His nervousness is only amplified by finding that his boss is more Joe Francis than Mark Zuckerberg. Isaac, who worked closely with Garland on the development of the character, portrays him as a dangerous mixture of brains and brawn, as if Michael Corleone spent months in a sickbed learning coding before ascending to the throne of his father’s empire.
Nathan is as direct and bullshit-free as you would expect a billionaire to be. Yet there’s also a sinister edge to his every word and movement. So when Nathan asks his skittish guest to participate in a Turing test that will gauge the readiness of his artificially intelligent creation, or to sign the non-disclosure agreement that allows him to track his every online movement, the feeling is that Caleb seems compelled more by fear than curiosity.
That all gets brushed aside once Caleb is in the presence of Ava, Nathan’s alluring and strangely comely creation. Although her body is primarily robotic, whirring and humming as she moves about, she’s been built as the society’s Platonic ideal of beauty: shapely, slender, and, yes, caucasian. But Ava is also something like the children of Dogtooth, raised in complete isolation from the rest of the world learning things only via the whims of the authority figures in her presence.
This is why Alicia Vikander’s performance is so important to the film. She finds that delicate balance between Ava’s blue-lit robotic core and her budding humanity, reading every line of dialogue with the pleasing but still mannered cadence of a computer’s speech-to-text program. Being even in her filmic presence, it’s easy to see why Caleb becomes so fascinated and eventually attracted to her. She’s a cipher, a Zen mask upon which he can project all of the qualities of what he deems to be the perfect woman.
The biggest mystery that leaves that cold ache of worry in your spine is figuring out what Nathan’s intentions are with this project. He portrays himself as a Dean Kamen-type who wants to dazzle the world with his latest technological marvel, but in his almost complete isolation (he’s tended to by a mute Japanese woman) and his out-of-nowhere mention that Ava has, for all intents and purposes, a vagina that can trigger a pleasure response, you fear that there is something a lot more selfish behind his creation. More pointedly, Nathan reveals that he was able to make his creation so lifelike by using the power he has acquired as a tech billionaire to gain access to all the mobile phones, web cameras, and online conversations happening in the world. He then fed all that data into Ava’s hungry brain and give her something close to humanity.
That little narrative detail is not a new one, especially when you remember that one of the major plotlines of Furious 7 is driven by the pursuit of a “God’s Eye” program that does the exact same thing. Beyond that, nothing else about Ex Machina comes as expected, not even the jarring bits of Kubrickian humor that Garland injects into the film, like the bizarrely hilarious synchronized dance routine Nathan and his valet engage in.
The climax of the film feels like the perfect choice, and feels like the obvious denouement of this story but only in retrospect. Until that point, Garland keeps your curiosity piqued and your muscles tense (he’s helped in that latter regard by a fantastic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow), while also lulling you at times with stray shots of the gorgeous Norwegian landscape where Ex Machina was shot. If this thrilling and haunting film is what comes as the result of one man’s singular, uncompromised vision, we can only hope that more production companies dare to cut the strings and let their charges run free.