A slick, spare, rather familiar yet visually striking combination of several of sci fi's most fundamental tropes, Alex "28 Days Later" Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina is the best small-scale sci fi movie that I've seen in a while. Nothing explodes in eardrum-popping Michael Bay-esque fireballs, but the film's slowly creeping sense of unease will unsettle you in far more visceral ways as the age-old Pygmalion fantasy myth of creating the perfect woman meets modern fears about artificial intelligence run amok.
The story begins with a young, socially awkward computer programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) who works for a massive tech company named
Google Facebook BlueBook. As the winner of an intra-company lottery, he is whisked off by helicopter into the seeming middle of wilderness nowhere to meet the company's genius recluse of a CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, his star fast rising in Hollywood). Caleb soon finds himself in Nathan's isolated compound, a place of glass, steel, and concrete that is as immaculate and soulless as a laboratory ... and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, Caleb learns that the house in its windowless bottom layers is indeed a lab and he himself brought in to be take part in a groundbreaking experiment.
Nathan has created an A.I. named Ava, and Caleb is there to be part of a Turing Test: to see whether a human being can interact with a computer and think that the computer is also a human. The twist on the classic test is this, though: Caleb is shown immediately that Ava is a machine in a synthetic female form, but in interacting with her, can he both intellectually know that she is artificial and also begin to consider her a being with consciousness? Thus the test begins as the movie divides itself into segments labeled with "Ava: Session #."
Ava, by the way, is played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander with an unsettling, glassy-eyed grace. Vikander reportedly trained as a ballerina, a fact that would explain how she invests every movement with a studied grace that she plays as a little too uncanny. I have to say that CGI in her character is wonderfully deployed, and it is noteworthy too for how it adds to the narrative instead of being frivolous eye candy. Ava as she first appears on screen is clearly a machine: she has the smooth face of a beautiful human girl (airbrushed like a cover model), but the back of her head is a slick curve of metallic mesh, her arms are clear plastic housing for mechanical components, and - perhaps most striking of all - her torso is completely transparent, revealing the glowing, whirring complexity of hardware within.
The film soon reveals itself as a subtle psychological thriller with three elements in a stand-off: Nathan, Caleb, and Ava. Nathan has ostensibly brought Caleb into his (increasingly claustrophobic while increasingly labyrinthine) compound to test Ava, but with cameras everywhere, evidence of Nathan's genius being devoid of moral depth, and Ava's startling, adaptive intelligence, Caleb - and we - soon begin to wonder just who is testing whom. Better: who is manipulating whom?
I'll stop here before I spoil the details, but I'll just say that Ex Machina is well worth a look. While its basic ideas are commonplaces in sci fi storytelling, its execution of those ideas is quite good. The film has its problems, but I can't quite talk about them without giving too much away. Let's just say this: the line between human and machine becomes as queasy as it is fascinating as it blurs.
Mad Minerva gives Ex Machina a grade of A-.
Ex Machina runs 108 minutes and is rated R for language, nudity, and some violence.
Rotten Tomatoes gives Ex Machina the Fresh rating of 91%.