“Ex Machina” is a very cool science-fiction movie. Cool as in nifty, sleek looking and smart, a movie genuinely intrigued with the science in its fiction. But also cool as in cerebral and calculating in its self-awareness.
The film marks a stylish directing debut for Alex Garland, the British writer known for his novel “The Beach,” which became a Danny Boyle film, and then for working with Boyle on a screenplay for his zombie thriller “28 Days Later…” and adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go” for the 2010 film.
A fine background for a savvy and elegant piece of scientific speculation, I would say.
This is a self-assured, meticulously engineered film that is, in a way, a throwback to science fiction from an era before the circus came to town with Marvel Comics, DC Comics et al, which turned sci-fi into the domain of fanboys and superheroes, a throwback to an era where writers such as Issac Asimov and Philip K. Dick pondered the implications of artificial intelligence and other Frankensteinian concepts.
For it is the idea of sentient machines that underlines the tense, claustrophobic drama writer-director Garland has created. He has stripped down the usual loud and visually overstimulated sci-fi world to a few essentials — three characters (well, there is a fourth lurking nearby), a single captivating setting and a dialogue-heavy tale of intrigue and menace where you’re never quite sure who is manipulating whom.
Rising young Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a geeky programmer for a Google-like Internet company, who wins an office lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote, isolated mountain estate.
Upon arrival by helicopter, he is ushered into a mostly underground compound with a security pass that permits him to enter only those areas Nathan wishes him to enter. He then discovers he has been chosen as the human component of a “Turing Test,” designed to differentiate humans from thinking androids.
The smart machine in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander, left), a provocative female robot with a wire-mesh midriff and shiny cranium but a soft, engaging human face. Each day’s interview between human and robot is recorded by Nathan who obsessively watches via closed-circuit cameras.
Caleb is to probe her intelligence and emotions but — she turns the tables and does likewise with him,. She even flirts and warns him, when she can, not to trust Nathan. (You need no such warning, however, since Nathan’s intensity and forced graciousness have a distinct bullying edge.)
So it’s a three-way cat-and-mouse game although I guess human-and-smart-machine is more like it. The stakes seem to rise with each passing day as Caleb struggles to understand what’s really going on. For it seems he must choose to align himself with either the possibly lethal Nathan or the seductive Ava, neither of whose motives are pure.
Isaac has in a very short time become a major actor from whom you expect the unexpected. From his breakout, eye-catching performance as a folk-singing misanthrope in the Coen Bros.’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” to his con man in “The Two Faces of January” and tremendous turn in the under appreciated “A Most Violent Year,” Isaac has emerged as a magnetic screen personality who is wildly different in each new role.
Here, with a nearly shaved dome and heavy beard, he portrays a man of genius with a warped malevolency and Zen-like intensity. Counterbalancing him is Ava, cooly serene and rational, who speaks and moves with a dancer’s grace, which makes sense since the Swedish-born actress is a former ballerina.
Gleeson may be the weak link although he handles the American accent well and certainly does come off as geeky and often intimidated by his two “housemates.” But he also is a little wispy and insubstantial as not only the film’s protagonist but the object of attention by two such powerful forces.
There is a fourth mysterious individual here, a thin Japanese woman (Sonoya Mizuno), who Nathan insists is employed because she speaks no English — she never speaks at all, in fact — so he may converse with Caleb without compromising any scientific secrets.
Indeed the sparse cast is one of the story’s curiosities. Why would such a high-security compound have no other occupants, if only guards and technicians? While its deserted spaces work to the film’s favor, they seem at odds with the very nature of any state-of-the-art scientific lab.
No matter, aside from the digital effects used for Ava — kudos to visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ — the sleek, spartan look of the mad scientist’s subterranean lair with glass walls, minimalist corridors and high-security apparatus gives you the willies. You know nothing good can come from this cold, overly-impressed-with-itself environment.
The third act gets a little confused with its twists and double twists, some of which may stretch credibility, but the film overall is satisfying. It’s a tightly controlled sci-fi chamber drama.
Some of its more intriguing elements such as Ava’s potential as a sex toy and the idea that any IA upgrade must entail the destruction of the conscience or “soul” of an older model get somewhat lost in the plot shuffles of the third act.
But a sci-fi’er that spins off more ideas than it has time to deal with is certainly preferable to comic-book science fiction that barely contains any ideas other than superhero conflict.
The added plus is that this is an outstanding directorial debut that makes one eager to see what Garland may turn to next.
Opens: April 10, 2015 (A24)
Production companies: DNA Films, Film4
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Issac, Sonoya Mizuno
Director/screenwriter: Alex Garland
Producers: Andrew McDonald, Allon Reich
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Mark Rigby
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Visual effect supervisor: Andrew Whitehurst
Editor: Mark Day
R rating, 110 minutes