Ex Machina (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, gets an opportunity of a lifetime when he is informed that he has been chosen to visit his employer’s massive and isolated estate. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a programming prodigy, has a project so secret that Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he is told a thing. Soon it is revealed to the lucky winner that he has been invited to evaluate whether the artificial intelligence that his boss created is truly conscious. Ava (Alivia Vikander) is the latest and most impressive design yet.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Ex Machina” is an impressive work because, like the great ruminative science fiction pictures that came before, it understands the art of patience. It takes its time to dazzle us with its imagery—particularly the special and visual effects involving the android—to make us think about where the story is going, and to instill a sense of wonder in us despite its limited universe.
The three central characters do not feel like one-dimensional sticks struggling to come out of the page. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander all have a je ne sais quoi, a presence, that when he or she utters a line, a thoughtful viewer might pick up on certain intonations and wonder if their characters mean something else entirely. The enigma is heightened by Garland’s direction. There are very few sudden camera movements. They simply flow as if it intended to protect us from being pushed out of the film’s mesmerizing, zen-like rhythm.
There are philosophical discussions about what makes a being human but they are never overbearing nor so didactic that it comes across like we are dropping into the middle of a lecture. Instead, certain lines and points come up naturally that feel precisely relevant to a character’s perspective. Particularly engaging are the exchanges between Nathan and Caleb. Both are intelligent young men, but we get to determine exactly which is more clever or more astute when it comes to certain subjects. That is exciting because there are not enough screenplays, within and outside of this genre, where differences among characters are communicated with such vibrancy.
The look of the picture is inviting. Shades of soft lighting and well-lit corners draw us in. Given that Nathan’s estate is both an elegant living space and a research facility, I found myself wanting to control the camera and focus on the little trinkets in various corners. This is why my favorite scene involves Nathan showing Caleb the parts of his AI, particularly the so-called wetware that is homologous to a brain. When the camera is focused on particular objects, I felt like I was in a museum, wishing to know every detail of foreign objects like how they work, what they are made out of, and what could happen to a system if a certain piece were missing.
“Ex Machina” is the kind of film where it is best that one decides to go into it blind. Part of the fun is to discover the little twists and turns as the tension mounts. Although the third act could have used a little bit of rewrite and polish, which makes it a bit less exemplary, I admired that it remained true to itself by taking its time as well as risks.