Review: 'Ex Machina' starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander

Not that the genre has ever really gone out of style or ever will, but the last year has seen a number of movies on artificial intelligence. Even the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron deals with evil robots turning on their masters. We get it; the robots will all eventually kill us but can't it be done in a way that we haven't seen before? Can't we be entertained before the robots destroy us? Ex Machina, which marks the directorial debut by 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine writer Alex Garland, is exactly the film we've been waiting for. A haunting and thrilling look at technology taken to the ultimate degree, it will make you look at every other movie about artificial intelligence in a whole new way.

Garland has become synonymous with taking familiar stories and giving them a fresh spin, whether it is zombie flicks or deep space sci-fi. Ex Machina may be the smartest film he's ever done. Think about a movie like Her, which found a man falling in love with his operating system. Ex Machina takes a similar tract, but really digs into what the idea of an intelligent thinking machine could mean. Like people, there would be shades of grey; there would be human weaknesses, human desires, and even baser human traits.

The machine at the center of this story is Ava (the lovely Alicia Vikander), a name that is deliberately a play on Adam & Eve. Ava is a sleekly designed cybernetic creation, a body of circuits inside a crystalline shell with a beautiful woman's face. The man who invented her, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is an eccentric tech genius who lives out in the middle of nowhere in a state-of-the-art estate. As the inventor of Blue Book, the world's top search engine, Nathan has everything he could ever want or need. He spends his days drinking, working out, fiddling with his inventions, and getting over hangovers. He's also the man with a plan, which we see put into action when Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a normal-everyday programmer at Blue Book, is chosen to fly to Nathan's estate for a getaway. But this isn't a social call. Nathan's there to perform the "Turing Test" on Ava to see if her personality is truly indistinguishable from a human.

Garland lays all of this out in the first 10 minutes or so, just one of many brilliant moves on his part. The rest of the film will require your full attention because every word matters, every line holds deeper meaning. Nathan is a strange bird; perhaps he's spent too long in isolation but he's trying too hard to be cool. He's always lifting weights and calling Caleb "bro". He's both polite and totally lacking in social graces. He's also got one heck of a temper. The film is structured around Caleb's seven sessions with Ava, and he is to give an honest opinion of her afterwards. She proves to be shy, innocent, and curious like a child experiencing the world for the first time. But she's also subtle and manipulative, especially when Caleb begins to show compassion for her predicament.

While Ex Machina works as a tantalizing love triangle about Ava and the only two men in her life, it's also a film that explores some big ideas. We tend to think of sentient machines in stark black or white terms. They are either subservient to us or menacingly against us, when the truth is that human thought encompasses so much more. Garland also examines the formation of human sexuality by exploring Ava's attraction to Nathan and his attraction to her. If a robot has human traits, wouldn't that include a naturally-occurring sexual attraction? Or is it something that needs to be determined by the inventor? Do humans choose who they love? Or is it "programmed" by outside influences?

There are a number big questions Garland raises, but he never takes his eye off making this an entertaining thriller. Tension is consistently ratcheted up and the story never hits a snag, even though it largely centers on three characters in one single location. It reminded me a lot of the Sundance drama, Z for Zachariah, which showed that human frailty remains the same no matter how far into the future one goes. Ex Machina says much the same thing, tackling themes of loneliness, jealousy, sexual desire, and delusional grandeur. It's also an ugly look at the ways men and women treat one another for selfish personal gain. There's even a little bit of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein thrown in for good measure.  Although this is his first time behind the camera, Garland keeps his camera steady and free of cheap visual tricks. It's a simple, sleek and clean approach with impeccable placement of character. Keep a close watch on how the actors are placed in each scene and how it signifies who has the real power. Even the ambient, hypnotic score helps build the suspense to an almost unbearable degree. If there's a problem it's that Garland reveals too early that something awful is going to happen later. We already come in suspecting it, but he could have let us wonder just a bit longer. It takes some of the sting out of it once things truly start going bad. He does manage to make up for it with bizarre turns that come out of nowhere, like a surreal dance number with Nathan and another sexy femme-bot.

All of the performances are top notch, which should be no surprise. Every character comes with deep layers requiring a degree of nuance that every actor hits just right. Gleeson continues to make the most from the least flashy of roles, showing us Caleb's insecurity, loneliness, and simple human decency. Vikander's role is the toughest, as she must transition imperceptibly from childlike virtuousness to seductive femme fatale all while maintaining a slightly artificial demeanor. Much of the humor, and there is plenty of it, will come from Isaac as the petulant man-child, Nathan.  Isaac has been doing such amazing work over the last couple of years that we may be starting to take it for granted, but his performance here has to rank as one of his best. Nathan is at times the guy we'd love to have a beer with and someone to be terrified of.

So what does Ex Machina say about human desire to create the perfect AI? It may be in our best interests to figure out our own problems first before passing them on to our future robot overlords.
Rating: 4 out of 5