Note: This review was originally published back in March 2015 as part of our coverage for the SXSW Film Festival.
There is a scene in Ex Machina that finds genius billionaire Nathan sprawled out on his couch in a drunken stupor. Alcohol is definitely his vice, but fortunately for us we get an insight as to what goes on in that smart and complicated brain of his. He’s lying there with a bottle of vodka in his hand, babbling a quote from the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.” This quote was also said by another genius, J. Robert Oppenheimer, after his atom bomb was tested for the first time. You may know another quote from the Gita that Oppenheimer famously recited: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is about a lot of ideas. It tackles the hero complex and the lengths to which some will go to do what they believe is “right.” It teases the God complex with a man whose technological wherewithal is second-to-none but tends to overstep his bounds. We ask ourselves: If a robot is able to feel and make its own decisions, does this make it human? Garland approaches and prods at many subjects, but whatever conclusions he reaches get lost somewhere out in Nathan’s vast estate.
We meet Caleb (soon-to-be Star Wars superstar Domhnall Gleeson) in the film’s only scene set outside his boss Nathan’s isolated home. He’s won a company lottery to visit Nathan (another soon-to-be Star Wars superstar, Oscar Isaac) for one week and is immediately congratulated in person and via text by countless friends. It’s a big deal, and before we know it, we’re with Caleb as he travels by helicopter to Nathan’s house. First-time director Garland proves his eye for scenery and setting is as effective as his words are from scripts past (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd).
A week of simply hanging out with the boss is not in the cards. While Nathan is very laid-back (a chill dude who says “bro” with sincerity), he wants Caleb to help him with a project he’s been working on. The project is a humanoid that has the facial features, voice, chest, and feet of a woman but is mostly android. Her name is Ava, and the week that follows finds Caleb engaging her in the Turing test, which the film and Wikipedia tells us is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” Nathan wants Caleb to find out if she passes this test.
While some scenes take place in the glaciers, fields, and lakes of Nathan’s massive tract of land, most of Ex Machina unravels within his house. Garland and company transformed a Norwegian hotel into a home of a man who is all about his work. The tight hallways and small living quarters are painted with something between an off-white and gray color, occasionally lit by bright red or blue lights. It’s within these walls that Ex Machina is at its best from a technical standpoint. It’s never less than gorgeous to look at despite what can only be described as dead lighting.
Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and Ben Salisbury provide a score that doesn’t fall prey to an over-reliance on swelling strings or horn sections. While there are moments in which the music increases in volume during pivotal scenes that call for it, Barrow and Salisbury best deliver in their minimalist approach when creating beats of a steady pulse under a soulless red light, and in a climax that is based around their music box-esque composition. It would be lazy to compare them to the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but I’ll go ahead and do that anyway. Both pairs should have continued success in creating solid scores in cinema.
As Nathan, Isaac steals every scene in which he appears. He’s this generation’s (early) Pacino — something deeper always happening behind those eyes, even during seemingly mundane conversations. The character provides most of the film’s humor, especially in a welcome over-the-top disco dance sequence that comes out of nowhere. Garland’s story is heavy on the technobabble, but he’s smart enough to include breaks of levity to avoid getting bogged down with sterile storytelling. Gleeson is fine as Caleb, the pushover with the hero complex, and his affection toward Ava feels earned.
As for Ava, relative unknown Alicia Vikander won’t be regarded as such for much longer. Labeling an actor’s performance as robotic is usually an insult, but as Ava, Vikander is a revelation. Much like the alien in Under the Skin, the humanoid in Ex Machina is clearly uncomfortable in her body, though she wants to be human. The effects work on her body is amazing, for this is a character whose torso, legs, and arms are wires encased in a shell. She never looks digital or created via use of green screen. She looks like a fully functioning machine.
Ex Machina has much to like, which makes its outcome all the more disappointing. To go into too much detail would be spoiling any potential for discovery, but it can be said that where the movie is headed can be guessed at early on. Not every movie has to have a twist, but in the case of straight science fiction, it shouldn’t be so predictable. Garland, whose third acts in 28 Days Later and Sunshine take serious turns (for better or worse), seems content with leaving the story alone in Ex Machina — but unfortunately, the story isn’t strong enough to earn such respect.
The film presents a case against both Nathan and Caleb, but I can’t help but question whether their respective outcomes are deserved. While some of Garland’s messages are tough to decode, there is no mistake that the film is very much on the side of Ava and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, her actions ultimately come off as extreme and unjustifiable.
Garland has written some of the best science fiction films of this century, so it’s startling to see him succeed more as a director than as a writer here. The movie is a technical marvel, but it suffers from an overly slow-and-steady sense of storytelling that doesn’t sell its ending. “The good deeds a man has done before defend him” could also apply to Garland, so here’s hoping his oft-reliable writing serves his next film better, whether he directs it or not.