Alex Garland takes his first endeavor into directing after years as an acclaimed screenwriter. Best known for his work on 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, Garland tends to work in the unreal, be it with big sci-fi ideas (society’s growing of clones) or small (virus turns people into zombie-esque creatures). Ex Machina does a little bit of both, digging into the notion of artificial intelligence with a tone of seriousness and a narrative of pulp.
The movie is largely a piece of three characters. The first is our entry-point Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young coder for the Google-ish company BlueBook. Caleb is selected in a lottery to visit the second member of the gang Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the uber-genius behind BlueBook who is so rich and remote a multi-hour helicopter ride only covers some of the land he owns in the mountains. It’s there Caleb is brought to so that he can spend a week with his boss for what is soon to be revealed as more than a fun getaway.
Nathan has summoned Caleb to be part of history. After some non-disclosure agreements and a tour of the sleek, heavily secured residence, Nathan reveals his intent to have Caleb perform a Turing Test on his A.I. Eva (Alicia Vikander). With a feminine frame and human face, if clear mechanical insides, Eva is the world’s most advanced piece of circuitry to date and Nathan wants to have Caleb run her through some emotional marathons.
There are a number of legends in the sci-fi realm that come to mind when watching Ex Machina. There is a bit of chilliness to the tenor that encourages thoughts of Kubrick. Yet, the work of Ridley Scott is perhaps most prominent as there’s a certain matter-of-factness to the technology that is reminiscent of Alien and Blade Runner. Ex Machina may take place roughly now or some near-future, but by having Nathan and Caleb both being up on their tech, neither treats any shift of Eva’s status as out-of-this-world. Instead, it’s a very studious approach. This calm demeanor hums along nicely with the obvious tensions the movie employs via Caleb’s uneasiness around Nathan. For every inspired thought Caleb brings to the conversation, Nathan is prone to knock another down. Add to that the constant recordings and prevalent cameras, Caleb seems as much under study as Eva.
The movie is framed around a handful of conversations between Caleb and Eva, the latter of which is inquisitive, ridiculously intelligent and perhaps full of ulterior motives. Is she scared of Nathan? What kinds of feelings are developing from her towards Caleb? What extent does she understand herself and those around her?
For much of Garland’s film, this is compelling stuff. Vikander is terrific as Eva, bringing a stillness to her movement, while implying timidity with her speech that leaves one curious of her true nature. From the production design to the effects to the writing, everything about the character is executed with inspired precision. Isaac too is a sensational element; easily agitated, egocentric and aware of the dangers in what he’s concocting. In one of Nathan and Caleb’s breakdowns of the day’s events, the tech-god discusses the inevitability of artificial intelligence. To him, it’s kind of like Mount Everest and climbed because it’s there. The part is given extra layers via Isaac’s offhanded annoyances over not having his every line of thought being properly followed. He seems himself as a god, if one that has natural human foibles and fondness for drunk dancing.
Here’s where things get sticky. The character of Caleb is problematic. Garland tries to give him enough back-story or moral complexity to make him more than a cipher. This is not achieved. This leads to the last act, and some scenes beforehand, to feel limp, predictable and anonymous. His actions seem to occur because the plot needs them to do so in order to get to the next step in the narrative. This isn’t helped by the briefness of many of the film’s conversations. Regularly conversations, be it between Caleb and Nathan or he and Eva, get into the meat of the matter, point out the thematic idea in a big stroke and then fail to expand upon it. Characters begin to speak the themes of the tale instead of in anything resembling dialogue.
By no means is this an all style, no substance endeavor. Ex Machina’s too well paced and occasionally smart to be that. Still, its turns towards conventionality frustrates and only reinforces how few of the ideas get their proper due. Garland’s debut hints at great things to come. He isn’t there yet though.