Director: Alex Garland
Runtime: 110 minutes
Though more successful as an acting showcase and atmospheric exercise than as a thought-provoking drama, Ex Machina nonetheless represents a promising directorial debut for screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine). Though Garland's efforts as a writer have previously been met with criticism for their finales, Ex Machina suffers instead from a mid-section in need of further development. Even so, this sci-fi drama is never less than engaging, thanks to a trio of strong performances and a polished aesthetic.
Young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds his modest life turned upside-down when he learns that he's won a contest at his company, an internet search engine that has apparently toppled Google (this is your first clue that you're watching science fiction). He'll get to leave his sleek Manhattan office and cramped apartment for a week to visit the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the company's brilliant and reclusive founder. Upon arriving at the rural estate (shot in Norway, though in the story it's never clear), Caleb finally learns the purpose of the trip. He has been chosen to perform the Turing Test on Nathan's android, to determine whether the machine possesses actual AI. That machine is named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and from "her" first appearance Caleb is entranced. At this point, he likely doubles for the audience.
Garland structures the film by interjecting title cards (Session 1, Session 2, etc...) not only to track the passage of time, but to slowly turn Caleb's journey from one of awe to one of queasy uncertainty. Though Caleb and Ava's first sessions are routine (well, as routine as groundbreaking human/robot interactions are...), a power outage changes everything. With the closed-circuit cameras down (and the facility on lockdown), Ava informs Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted. Then the lights and cameras go back up and the two carry on as if nothing has happened.
Where Ex Machina stops short of truly reaching for greatness is that Garland doesn't nurture Ava's revelation to create something more complex. There are hints of malice and deception, but a more urgent sense of conflict never arrives. Caught between making a straightforward mystery and a richer, thornier character piece, Garland choses the former path. So it's a good thing that the relative lack of adventure in the writing is handled well on all fronts. Even when Ex Machina reveals that it's not committing to going the extra mile with its premise, it remains a satisfying piece of sci-fi drama.
This is largely due to the wide range of strong work from Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander. All three roles are wildly different, and the script knows how to play them all off of each other. Isaac is the most enjoyable of the lot, creating a tech genius who's part Steve Jobs, and part frat-boy jackass. With his true intentions shrouded in ambiguity, Isaac has the juiciest role, and he makes it count (he also gets a hilarious dance sequence that I desperately wish could have been longer). Gleeson is ideally cast as well, making for a solid everyman finally getting a taste of what it's like to participate in something meaningful. Vikander, who had a much different relationship with Mr. Gleeson in Anna Karenina, is every bit as good as her male co-stars, working quiet wonders with a role that could have been stifling.
As mentioned above, technical aspects are strong across the board. Rob Hardy's photography richly captures the contrasting sides of the settings (half ultra-sleek modern, half woodsy forrest retreat), seamlessly blending actual locations and sets together to create a cohesive setting. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's electronic score is an essential part of drawing one into the scenario, sometimes relying on nothing more than a single repeated note to signal a shift in mood. And despite the lack of larger-than-life science fiction elements in Ex Machina, the sound team deserves significant praise for the subtle work put into everything from Nathan's house to the little whirrs and blips that emit from Ava's internal machinery. Even in small-scale sci-fi, it's the technical details that can make or break one's investment in a narrative, and Mr. Garland's collaborators have done a marvelous job without distracting from the story.
Ex Machina's short-comings explain why it doesn't deserve to be ranked among the best of the sci-fi genre, but they're also unobtrusive. There's little that disrupts one's engagement with the plot and with these characters. Ex Machina doesn't make major mistakes with its storytelling, but rather with the nature of its substance. To call Garland's film a noble failure is too harsh a judgement. It's not that Garland fails with his debut, but that from early on he makes the decision to opt for palatable ideas and themes rather than truly challenging ones.