PLOT: A computer programmer gets the opportunity to meet his reclusive boss at his vast estate; he soon learns that he's been brought there to test out an artificial intelligence... one that looks like a young woman.
REVIEW: Alex Garland, screenwriter of fan favorites 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE and DREDD, makes a compelling directorial debut with EX MACHINA, a claustrophobic sci-fi mindgame that's like if Alfred Hitchcock had directed an episode of The Outer Limits. Infused with clever ideas and an unshakable sense of unease, the film manages to crawl under your skin and make you think, while also bringing us a possible (creepy) vision of the not-so-distant future.
I's also very cold and calculating - not unlike a few of its characters - and ultimately left me feeling as if it had pushed me away as opposed to welcomed me in. That's perhaps intentional on Garland's part, as no one would ever accuse the man of attempting to deliver the warm and fuzzies, but that sensation of being detached from the film just stops it short of being exemplary for me.
The story wastes no time getting started; mere minutes after silently meeting boyish programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), we're whisked away, with him, to the enormous compound of multi-millionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of a Google-like search engine and one of the geniuses of his time. Caleb has ostensibly been picked randomly by Nathan to take part in a potentially revolutionary project. Nathan has created an honest-to-goodness artificial intelligence: Ava (Alicia Vikander), a walking, talking fembot with a beautiful face and chrome body. Caleb is to test Ava to see if she actually has become sentient, and under the watchful gaze of Nathan (and his many security cameras), he'll quiz her to see just how "human" she can be.
Early on, EX MACHINA establishes a tone of eerie dread, with Nathan's underground bunker functioning almost as a prison for all who stay there. (Let it be said that the sets in this movie are fantastic.) It's quite clear, to the audience at least, that Nathan has ulterior motives, which he doesn't even attempt to hide under his self-satisfied rhetoric and knowing smile. Whether or not he's toying with Caleb for unknown purposes is one of the movie's many mysteries, since he seems even more interested in Caleb's responses to the test than Ava's. Garland shoots in a clinical, objective style that makes us feel like we're studying test subjects of our own. We're watching a chess match played by three characters, and whoever wins will do so with dire consequences for the others. Garland is a very good writer, with no line of dialogue proving to be extraneous.
Isaac is excellent, as per usual; his Nathan is a drunkard and a mind-fucker, and Isaac gives him all the arrogant gravitas of a tin god. Vikander is also quite good, infusing Ava with a personality that is at once sympathetic, sensual and vaguely disquieting. (And as a visual effect, Ava is a marvel.) Gleeson is well cast as a sort of everyman and audience surrogate, although since we know so little about him, it's a little difficult to care too much about him. (As stated, the movie starts so quickly that we don't get to establish who Caleb actually is before he's thrust into this situation.)
So what's holding EX MACHINA back for me? I didn't care for the ending much, which seems a little more derivative than what's come before it. While falling short of being considered a "twist ending," it's a bit more predictable than I'm sure Garland would have liked, concluding the movie on a ho-hum beat rather than something more exciting or thought-provoking. The film's overall aesthetic is analytical and cerebral; some might say Kubrickian. It's hard to explain why, but I left it feeling nothing much at all. That could change on a second or third viewing - and I do intend to see it again - but for now EX MACHINA will have to settle for being merely good when it hints at being great. Still, I'll take good any day of the week, so you can definitely consider this a recommendation, especially for appreciators of brainy science-fiction.