Like the best sci-fi of the seductive, suspenseful, smart variety, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores heady questions of science and progress in a gripping entertainment. It locks us into a deceptively simple concept and proceeds to get deeper and creepier, turning up unexpected developments, at once great surprises and, better still, utterly inevitable in retrospect. A film of sleek surfaces, silent astonishments, and quiet terror, it’s a beautifully unsettling thought experiment about the speed with which technology might outpace mere humanity, and our matter-of-fact folly in outsourcing so much trust in our lives to the whims of the tech geniuses among us.
Mad scientists these days aren’t the lab coat-wearing, wild-haired eggheads of yore. Now they’re more likely to be billionaire tech moguls, eccentric, brilliant, mysterious, with unlimited resources and unparalleled access to our lives. Oscar Isaac plays one in Ex Machina, using his likability as smarmy charisma. Holed up at his futuristic mansion/research facility in the middle of nowhere, he’s working on a top-secret artificial intelligence project and needs an outside opinion to test it. Enter Domhnall Gleeson, a programmer in Isaac’s vast company. Thinking he’s simply won a trip to this mysterious rich man’s outpost, the programmer is forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, then shown the object of study: Ava, a humanoid robot with womanly curves, exposed fiber-optic panels, and fleshy face and hands. It’s uncanny, a mechanical person metallic in long shots, persuasively real in close-ups.
The inventor wants the programmer to study his creation, testing the limits of Ava’s consciousness. Is she experiencing real emotions, real thoughts, or is she only coded that way? Garland sets up the film as a series of interrogations between man and machine, normal dialogue turned uncanny by the inescapable sci-fi mysteries simmering underneath. The man tests Ava, is drawn into her reality, her personhood. When the camera pulls close to her face, we can see how real she looks. The more he interacts with her the more she becomes a character to which we can ascribe motive, interiority. But should we? What’s she up to? And, for that matter, can the man trust his host’s intentions for this experiment? The film’s score underlines unease with a constant digital hum murmuring suspense.
What makes this dynamic effective is the striking, complex work of Alicia Vikander, who supplies the robot’s face and, with eerily convincing special effects, fluid movements with a trace of electronic gears in her gait. There’s a bit of Maria from Lang’s Metropolis in her build. It’s a chilly performance with a hint of warmth – of life – behind her eyes that is contextually fascinating. Such a totally credible fusion of writing, acting, and effects, I almost immediately stopped admiring the creation and simply believed. Her expressions seem normal, but carry a dash of suspicion. What does it mean to smile? Is she mimicking? Is she manipulating? Or is she actually emoting? It remains a tantalizing open question for the audience and for the characters. What is she capable of? I’m sure there’s some satiric point in a story of men who literally build an objectified woman. It’s complicated, and yet unsurprising.
Of course the mad scientist has secrets. What else could you expect when his massive building has power outages, doors swooshing shut, unpredictable keypads, hidden rooms, dark corridors, and rows of locked cabinets. And of course the true subject of the experiment is up in the air – who studies the other, the robot or its creators? But Garland, making his directorial debut after a career scripting great sci-fi features like 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, creates of the expected plot points a nervy story that proceeds logically and methodically through its twists. It makes great use of a shifting protagonist. Who will escape this increasingly claustrophobic setting, painted in cinematographer Rob Hardy’s darkly smooth surfaces? Who should we root for? Rather than sticking with one rooting interest – our everyman entry point, or the enigmatic mogul, or the compelling robot – it questions aims and intentions of each in turn. Who will escape? My answer shifted with the film’s reveals, as it packed familiar but profound implications in small gestures and artful pulp.