Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a programmer for Blue Book, one of the world's top tech companies. When the film begins, there's a massive hunt on for an invitation to stay at the house of the company's creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), for one week. Caleb wins this contest and is transported by private jet to Nathan's massive estate. The reclusive billionaire starts with small talk, but then reveals the true purpose of the contest- he wanted the winner to come and perform a Turing Test on his new Artificial Intelligence experiment, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is fascinated by Ava and becomes close with her in many different ways. But what are Nathan's true intentions? Can he be trusted? Through a series of chilling events, Ex Machina becomes a parable for the terrifying future that A.I. could unleash.
The trouble with A.I. films is that they always feel the need to work as both a piece of entertainment and a big, obvious warning against this prospective technology. And despite its best efforts, Ex Machina falls into these traps too. The movie gets very talky at times, and can be bogged down in its own scientific ambition. This is also a big-budget story told on a low budget. It feels at times like Garland was constrained by his financial limitations and that shows in the film. Nevertheless, Ex Machina succeeds in being both a tense sci-fi thriller and a frightening character study that provokes and disturbs in equal measure. Part of that can be credited to the film's superb technical efficiency, but the characters are ultimately what bring this film to life.
Oscar Isaac steals the show again as Nathan, the drunken billionaire behind this new A.I. phenomenon. Isaac is such a fantastic actor, consistently giving his characters the nuance they deserve. He impressed me in Drive and A Most Violent Year, but so far his crown jewel is his sarcastic, sad performance in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. And while his funny, damaged performance in Ex Machina doesn't quite reach that level, it's another fine entry into his filmography. I'm very excited to see what he does with Star Wars later this year (fun fact: Domnhall Gleeson also is set to appear in The Force Awakens).
Vikander is the final aspect of this small, but talented cast and she is impressive as well. She channels a strong, calming tone of voice and an icy, manipulative personality that works very well for Ava. The character of Ava is somewhat underdeveloped, but Vikander is perfect for the part- it's not hard to see why Caleb might fall for her. The makeup and visuals work on Ava also deserves a lot of recognition, impressively subtle and even a little astounding at times.
Ex Machina is a film that thrives on technical efficiency. It's so clean, so smooth and so gorgeously done that you simply can't deny its filmmaking power. The musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is expertly chilling, while the production design and cinematography create a subtle atmosphere of dread and fear. Garland maintains a level of filmmaking mastery that is incredible to behold and I can't wait to see where he goes with his ideas in the future.
Garland, however, has less of a mastery in the script department. For me, much of Ex Machina felt muddled or at least came out as frustratingly ambiguous. Character motivations are not always clear, the development isn't always where I wanted it to be. Long scenes between Caleb and Ava feature testing and conversations, but to be honest, I never felt like they really got close to each other. That's why some of the later turns felt a bit unwarranted.
Despite those missteps, Ex Machina is a more than worthy film that does an extremely effective job of telling a compelling story. Anchored by three great performances and a director with a great visual eye, this is a film to think about and dissect. Like A Most Violent Year earlier in 2015, this is a film that hints at several promising Hollywood careers and I think that it'll be very interesting to look at this film down the line. But for now, sci-fi fans should readily seek out this engaging and thought-provoking film that mixes hard science and character drama to create a solid, if flawed whole. It might not live up to the hype for me, but it's a film that starts a conversation that will certainly be a part of our modern society for a very long time.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.4/10)
Image Credits: Variety, Telegraph, Ex Machina Movie, Indiewire, Reddit