In the near future, Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a code programmer who works for an Internet search engine company called Blue Book. When Caleb is summoned by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company’s elusive CEO, he finds himself flown by helicopter over acres of snowy, mountainous regions, all of which, he’s informed, are owned by Nathan. Once Caleb meets his employer, he’s told he’s been selected for an experiment and will remain in Nathan’s underground research facility/home for a week. During that time, he must assess whether the robot Nathan created, named Ava (Alicia Vikander), has truly achieved consciousness.
Gleeson was the likable lead of the charming sci-fi/comedy About Time and, in the same way, he’s perfectly cast here. He comes off utterly authentic and relatable. Isaac is, like Jeffrey Wright, one of those chameleons who can play anyone and does it so well, you may not appreciate the diversity of his body of work. Playing Nathan as both a master showman and an insecure boy genius, Isaac makes his Bill Gates-like character a funny, maddening figure. Vikander is astonishing, embodying a machine that may or may not be possessing a genuine ability to think and feel on a highly evolved level. I watched her performance very closely and couldn’t catch her acting, despite how hard she works at making her every movement seem manipulated by robotics. Good luck trying to take your eyes off of her.
This is Alex Garland’s directorial debut. He wrote 28 Days Later…, The Beach (based on his novel) and Sunshine, all of which share the same quality as this one: stories with great beginnings but endings that fizzle out. Ex Machina has much to recommend it, though it has a conclusion that seems to keep its best ideas close to the vest and is rather unsatisfying. While not a disastrous finish, the last act is full of incident but devoid of the big reveal that could have really put it over. Instead of building to something that Rod Serling or Isaac Asimov would have loved, we’re left with our head spinning, when what we wanted was to have our minds blown.
It might seem like faint praise but the most outstanding quality of Ex Machina is the art direction. The sets have the sheen, chilly glossiness, and glowing beauty of a computer, which I’m sure was the point. Both a transparent landscape for the characters and a mirrored prison that conveys a claustrophobic purgatory, Nathan’s living space and labs are stunningly designed. So are the visual effects, which perfectly create the illusion of Ava’s skeletal body connected to fully human components.
This is a much stronger, far more memorable and thoughtful portrayal of the possibilities of robots adapting human behavior than Chappie. Yet, it doesn’t come close to matching the visual poetry and troubling questions raised by Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I thought I knew where Ex Machina was going all along, as visual clues suggest unspoken qualities to Nathan’s past that I assumed would come to light.
But in the end, none of the big questions (like why Caleb performs self-mutilation) are answered or even addressed. Whether Garland wished to keep things open to interpretation or my theory of a bigger story is unfounded, the result is the same: a game of show and tell where the characters don’t tell us enough and Garland ends the story at a point where he should be showing us much more.
Much of Ex Machina is made up of long conversations between Caleb and Nathan. Their patter is like the title itself: clever but pretentious. There are rich ideas here to dissect once it’s over, a great quality of any film. Yet, for all the visual dazzle and the intriguing sci-fi variation on female empowerment, Garland’s movie left me cold and wanting more.