There is a creepy inevitability to Ex Machina that distinguishes the movie both as a work of modern horror and of prescient science fiction. You watch it not only knowing that something bad is going to happen, but that when it happens, it will likely go down both in the theater and in the real world.
That “something” is the arrival of artificial intelligence, a ripe subject that doesn’t always receive such riveting cinematic treatment (ahem, Chappie). Written by Alex Garland, who is also making his directorial debut, Ex Machina stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a brilliant programmer who is selected by the CEO of his company for a top-secret experiment. Taken by helicopter to a remote and highly secure estate – a fitting home for someone who essentially runs a combination of Facebook and Google – Caleb finally meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and learns his assignment: to converse with an artificially intelligent female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and determine if she can convince him that she has consciousness.
Despite the seemingly talky setup, Ex Machina is tantalizingly cinematic, from its production design to its score. Nathan’s house is representative of what’s taking place behind its highly secure doors. With glass walls that intersect existing boulders, it’s a merging of the technological and the natural, a variation not only of Ava herself but also of contemporary wearables like the Apple Watch and Google Glass. Nathan’s home seems to be designed to imply that there is no distinction between what God has created and what man has made. Note, however, that there are no windows in Caleb’s room.
As for the music, credited to Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, it mostly consists of ambient electronic effects, which rise and lower over the course of a scene, as if spaceships were disembarking somewhere on Nathan’s property. Even subtler are the barely audible notes in the conversation scenes between Caleb and Ava, a slight but insistent pulsing that suggests an electronic heartbeat.
Part of the effectiveness of Vikander’s performance is its lack of range.
None of these touches, however, bring as much vitality to Ex Machina as does Isaac’s red-blooded performance. Instead of an inward-focused nerd, his Nathan is something of a coding bro. His dominant trait is not effete braininess, but masculine physicality. We first see Nathan pummeling a punching bag. He drinks like a fish. Early on, when Caleb starts talking tech, Nathan tells him: “Can we just be two guys?” He even gets a goofy dance scene, but I won’t spoil the details.
Given his volatility, Nathan continually keeps you on your toes. Is he amusing? Exasperating? Dangerous? Ex Machina doesn’t attempt to make Nathan endearing, and you could say the same about Caleb. (Gleeson affects a certain level of aloofness that’s effective here.) Even more interesting, the movie takes a similar approach to Ava. Unlike, say, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence – a wonderful film in a completely different way – Ex Machina isn’t looking to anthropomorphize A.I. in an attempt to warm our hearts. If, like Spielberg, Garland used Pinocchio as inspiration, it was only for the considerable darkness at that fairy tale’s heart.
Vikander’s delicately distanced performance is perfectly in concert with this. Even when Ava comes across as a victim (a subplot that lends deliciously feminist undertones to the climax), Vikander does very little to encourage our sympathy. In fact, part of the effectiveness of her performance is precisely its lack of range. Vikander is eerily consistent throughout the film, smartly playing Ava as a denizen of an uncanny valley, something like HAL 9000’s niece (or perhaps his great grandmother).
By keeping Ava at arms’ length, Ex Machina enhances both the believability and the suspense of its narrative. By the final act, we’re utterly perplexed as to who deserves our rooting interest: Nathan, Caleb or Ava. And if we go with Ava, might it be at the expense of the human race? Merciless, efficient and terrifyingly logical, Ex Machina could have been programmed by a computer. And in case some real-world Ava eventually reads this, I mean that as a compliment.