This is a question long posed by science fiction literature and films and Ex Machina is the latest to take a stab at answering the unanswerable. The plot itself is simple. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for a Google-like search engine company called BlueBook. He wins a company wide lottery to spend a week at the home of company founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While there, he discovers he’s been set-up and the real purpose of his visit is to “test” an android, Ava (Alicia Vikander) to see if she truly possesses artificial intelligence. This is done through a series of interviews, where Caleb and Ava exchange nuance-heavy dialogue.
Interestingly, this plays more like a Blade Runner prequel thought experiment than anything else. It’s a constant cat and mouse game between the three players, each taking turns being the aggressor or the victim and as such it does, I think, what it sets out to do, which is get us to question our own humanity and how we would react in the same situation. My only problem is that it does it despite the work of first time director Alex Garland, which is unfortunate because Garland is also the screenwriter.
This is an example of why writers shouldn’t be automatically allowed to direct. As a script, there’s a lot to work with here. The characters are interesting and complex, the situations fascinating and deep and the actors are top notch. Gleeson, seen recently in About Time, gives Caleb a sad, almost pathetic existence as a lonely man who is excited about the possibility of finding something real. Isaac, who will be appearing with Gleeson later this year in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, is full of subdued menace and casual cruelty. Finally, Vikander, who spends most of the film as a face resting above some incredibly impressive CG, is tortured as a robot who doesn’t understand why she’s different. She’s also the most adrift in what is, from a directorial standpoint, a drab affair.
Garland the writer (he gave us wonderful films like 28 Days Later…, Sunshine and Dredd) is fine. In fact, I’d love to see this adapted to a stage version with only Caleb and Ava on stage and Nathan as a mysterious overseer, present only as a controlling voice. It’s like The Silence of the Lambs in that regard, where the conversation between the primary characters is more engaging than the actual action of the film. Garland the director, however, doesn’t understand how to move a camera or how to create a filmic rhythm. Everything plays as flat. Even the talented actors don’t seem to know what to do with themselves half the time. As well, it seems someone once told him, maybe in a bar, after several drinks, that films needed visual metaphors, that’s what makes them cool. He took it a bit to heart, centering his conceptual design on a Jackson Pollack painting to indicate the controlled chaos of the human mind while in almost every scene, one character or another is reflected in some way, either directly with a mirror or in the omnipresent glass walls of the isolated estate/lab in which the action takes place. Even the final scene is filled with shadows of people walking by, indicating they’re not all present. It’s a bit much.
Now, to be fair, the effects are amazing. Vikander spends a good deal of her screen time as a see through construct (with only a human face and hands) and the result is pretty flawless. It’s certainly worth seeing this film, if for no other reason than the discussion afterwards, but you certainly don’t need to see it in the theatre. In fact, I bet seeing it on a small screen might actually soften the flaws and give it a resonance it may not deserve.