There’s been a trend that’s gained steam over the last decade or so, in which a movie isn’t deemed smart or clever or fully realized unless it has a great twist. Short of that, it should have some spectacular effects and probably Andy Serkis doing mocap or something. Ex Machina, however, bucks all of those expectations— not that it doesn’t have great effects (because wow is its A.I. depiction seamlessly impressive), or great surprises, but the movie flies in the face of so much of what the sci-fi genre (and, really, most movies) has become by reverting to its simplistic roots. Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later in his directorial debut, has created a movie of ideas. And while it would be fantastic if that’s weren’t such a refreshing rarity, this is the cinematic landscape we’re living in and at least we can appreciate the fact that this specific rarity completely nails everything it sets out to accomplish.
Starting off, parts of this movie may feel familiar— from the Dr. Frankenstein meets Bram Stoker set up to the general idea of sexy, romantic A.I. (no one would blame you for thinking this, at least on paper, was barely a step removed from Scarlett Johansson’s Her)— this sum of these familiar parts is something entirely new. Or at the very least, something familiar done to perfection. Using an incredible economy of time and ideas, the movie sets us off into thriller territory, skipping the extensive backstories and needless exposition we’re so used to and instead swiftly and wordlessly introducing us to one of our three main characters. A young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), has been selected to spend a week at the sprawling, disturbingly isolated estate of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Unbeknownst to Caleb, he has come to be the human equivalent in a Turing test of Nathan’s robotic creation— to meet and interact with Nathan’s ‘Ava’ (the truly incredible Alicia Vikander) in an attempt to discern whether or not she has actual artificial intelligence. From there, the movie is a series of encounters: between Nathan and Caleb, alternating between Nathan’s desire to break from his intense isolation and hang out as bros and their mutual experiment; the mostly (looking back, possibly entirely) wordless interactions between Nathan and his creation, Ava; and, most prominently, between Caleb and Ava. Their interviews turned friendship turned something much more complicated is the crux of the film. These interactions raise nothing but questions— complicated, unanswerable questions. Without relying on the twisty tricks we know so well, the movie makes us question everything we see and hear. And yet, with all the constant, high-stakes questions (Is Ava true A.I.? Does she have feelings for Caleb? Does she even have feelings? Is she manipulating him? Is Nathan manipulating everyone?), Garland manages to keep the movie away from mystery whodunnit territory. This is much closer to an expertly played game of chess. We know there will be a winner and a loser, and while we are excited to see how this will turn out, it’s the process, the journey of getting there, that is the fascinating part.
In many ways, this is an old school sci-fi flick— from the Kubrickian spaceship feel of Nathan’s subterranean lair to the needlessly outdated technology of this tech genius’ metal key cards. But all of that familiar set-up is contrasted with a disconcertingly intimate commitment to its characters. Of course it helps that all three of these actors are at the absolute top of their game, with chemistry that could make any movie feel like a straight-up masterpiece. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that has such strong individually developed leads. In the conversations I’ve had with others who have seen the movie, I was amazed to find that, in discussing who this film actually belongs to— whose story it is— everyone seemed to identify with a different character. You could easily see this as Caleb’s story, as the innocent brought in to uncover a mystery. Or it could be Nathan’s story— the story of a man trying to be a god and falling short. Or maybe it’s Ava’s story— a genesis of life, learning what life is, learning how to be alive by whatever means necessary. Again, there is no right answer, not to any of these questions. Which is exactly what’s so thrilling.