Alex Garland is responsible for writing two of my favorite movies in the last fifteen years. 28 Days Later and Sunshine were both collaborations between Garland and director Danny Boyle that told thought-provoking stories about humanity’s flaws and its willpower in a familiar but somehow original sci-fi or horror premise. Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina follows this trend and leaves a lot for the viewer to ponder.
After Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to work alongside Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the head of a Google-like empire, he discovers the man’s true reason for calling upon the young programmer. Nathan has created an artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb is tasked with evaluating the machine’s consciousness. However, nothing is quite as it seems.
Alex Garland is no stranger to confined storytelling. Ex Machina takes place almost entirely in Nathan’s estate with only a few characters. This narrative choice lends itself to a nuance in the storytelling that pits the viewer directly in the paranoid scope of its protagonist.
Garland’s storytelling is further enriched by Isaac’s portrayal of Nathan, the eccentric genius who Caleb isn’t sure he can trust. Isaac injects so much quirky magnetism into Nathan’s demeanor that it makes it hard for us to get a handle on his true intentions. Nathan is charming and mercurial but underneath he’s a troubled character who drinks himself to sleep under the weight of his creation.
In fact, the best moments of Ex Machina are not in the potentially duplicitous scenes between man and machine. The best moments are between Caleb and Nathan where the two discuss the implications of the work Nathan has done and what Ava represents for the future of humanity. Through rapturous dialogue in these scenes, Garland crafts a unique viewpoint of the world in which he’s set his stage.
The plot is driven on the chemistry between Vikander’s Ava and Gleeson’s Caleb. When Caleb meets the machine for the Turing test he’s administering, there’s a clear spark in the playful give and take of their conversations. As the relationship grows, the plot moves forward into darker territory. Vikander and Gleeson give wonderful performances that give an earnest feel to their respective character arcs.
Unfortunately, I found myself struggling to buy into the pair’s feelings for one another throughout the movie. This proved especially troubling as the climax of the movie hinges on the feelings between Ava and Caleb. Garland’s script stumbles in building the pair’s romantic feelings for one another. Instead of slowly showing Caleb’s growing affection for the machine, the script gives the audience Caleb’s perspective in a hurried and on the nose manner. By the third act we believe Caleb cares for her, but it’s a bumpy road he travels toward those feelings.
Despite this rushed growth of its core relationship, Ex Machina tells a well-paced story that manages to sidestep some of Garland’s storytelling signatures that have been criticized in the past. You won’t find a character turn that radically shifts the tone and pacing (or even genre) of the movie in its third act. Instead, Ex Machina spends most of its runtime carefully setting the pieces on a hypothetical chessboard before delivering its thrilling finishing maneuvers.
In the end, Ex Machina achieves what great science fiction by its definition is burdened with providing its audience. It creates a world and fills it with unique individuals whose actions linger in the subconscious of the audience. These actions make a powerful statement about humanity’s imperfections and its genius, but most of all they tell an engaging story about the folly of man. In doing so, Ex Machina leaves the viewer to ponder the implications of human growth and consciousness in and of itself.