Ava (Alicia Vikander) may be futuristic in design and intelligence software but her femme fatale story is as old as the movies.
That’s one of the many pleasures throughout writer/director Alex Garland’s tech thriller Ex Machina. In a story ripped from the hallways of CMU, Garland (writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go) balances futurist forecasting with classic noir elements of a beautiful woman; apparently trapped but more than capable of outwitting the men around her.
Up-and-comer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery at his tech employer and the chance to spend one week with the mysterious Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan is his company’s founder and a game-changing technologist in the Zuckerberg mold. He also is a megalomaniac who fashions himself a god for creating a lifelike and beautiful female A.I.
After a helicopter drop-off deep in the wilderness, signed NDA agreements and lessons in security protocol, Caleb comes to learn the reason behind his visit. Nathan is deep in a top secret A.I. project and he wants Caleb to facilitate a Turing test on his latest A.I. creation, the soft-spoken, beautifully designed Ava.
“Are you attracted to me?” Ava asks Caleb during one of their interview sessions. Slowly, steadily, as the interview sessions between Ava and Caleb unfold, partnerships are formed and Ex Machina achieves the brisk tempo of an escape movie.
Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy (Boy A, Shadow Dancer) transforms Nathan’s Architecture Digest-worthy compound into a sinister character of sliding doors, stark industrial décor and cold colors. Nathan’s home is sleek extension of himself and the way he sees people around him.
Caleb is not an employee to celebrate. He’s a means to test Ava. And Ava? Well, she’s just the latest A.I. model with more on the way.
Oscar Isaac, so wonderful in the little-seen dramas A Most Violent Year and Inside Llewyn Davis, goes the blockbuster route with appearances in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse. Until he’s surrounded by pyrotechnics, it’s good to see Isaac in a role driven by emotion more than CGI.
Domhnall Gleeson flashes puppy dog eyes as Caleb but it’s clear where his loyalties rest early into the movie. Still, Gleeson balances both the expected and unexpected plot elements in the movie.
Yet, Ex Machina is all about its robot girl; much like Metropolis and Blade Runner before it.
Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) riffs on the longstanding sci-fi theme of artificial intelligence as transgressor but softens her steel heart with love for frocks and wigs and a Pinocchio-inspired desire to be a real girl.
Vikander makes you love Ava, and then, with a smile, commit to helping her. It’s not at all surprising but the consequences are still fun to behold.
Ex Machina, from A24, is currently in theaters nationwide.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Director/Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Composer: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury
Cinematographer: Rob Hardy
Producers: DNA Films
Running time: 108 minutes