My level of anticipation for Ex Machina wasn’t to The Force Awakens levels–nothing is–but it was still pretty high. It stars Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, all three of whom I really like. The marketing materials (Svedka vodka-esque robot butt pose poster aside), made it look like innovative, intelligent sci-fi. And, most impressively, it’s the directorial debut of Alex Garland, who wrote the excellent 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd in addition to one of my favorite sci-fi films ever, 2007’s Sunshine.
That’s a hell of a lot to live up to. But did it deliver? Yes. And no. But mostly yes. Spoilers follow.
The basic premise of Ex Machina is that computer programmer Caleb (Gleeson) wins the chance to visit the remote estate of Nathan (Isaac), the reclusive genius CEO of the Google-esque company where Caleb works. Turns out Nathan has built a cyborg, Ava (Vikander), and he tasks Caleb with running the Turing test on her. As you can tell from the trailers, things don’t go smoothly from there. The motivations of both Nathan and Ava come into question, with Caleb caught like an adorable ginger fly in the web between them.
You can definitely tell that the same person who wrote Sunshine wrote Ex Machina. Both films present typical sci-fi plot elements–space travel in Sunshine, robots here–with an introspective, philosophical bent. The nature of artificial intelligence is wonderfully explored here, not only failing to fall into the “We’ve created something that will rise up and kill us all!” trope, but by the end of the film deftly subverting it. Similarly, the trope of sexualizing female robots–“All women need boobz. Even robot ones! Robot is female. I have decided. Boobz on her”.–is addressed in a smart, unexpected way that I really dug.
That said, you can also tell that this is Garland’s first time as a director. Like Sunshine, Ex Machina blends sci-fi and suspense, but wheras in Sunshine there was a sense of creeping horror that gradually grew to full balls-to-the-wall horror in the third act, here things are a lot more choppy. Individual scenes are suspenseful, but then Garland abruptly dials it back to exposition terrirtory. Things don’t flow like they should. That’s not a dealbreaker, but it does mean the film’s atmosphere takes a hit. It could’ve used a sustained “I don’t know what going on here, but I’m creeped the hell out by it” vibe, too, because the plot is so sparse. Fundamentally, Ex Machina is three people. In a house. Talking.
That said, Garland is a damn good writer. I haven’t talked about the actors here–I knew they would be good, they were good, they’re just about always good. Oscar Isaac deserved an Oscar nomination for Inside Llewyn Davis, PRAISE BE–but I do want to talk about one character: Nathan. The “reclusive tech genius” most often brings visions of Gateses and Zuckerbergs to mind: Pasty, socially awkward white guys glued to their computers and their Red Bulls 24/7. Nathan, however, is a bro. He lifts weights, pounds back brewskis, and calls Caleb “dude.” It is delightful that Garland did something different with that character.
Would I like to have seen what this script would have been like in the hands of a more experienced director with a more honed sense of visual style? Like, say, Sunshine and 28 Days Later‘s Danny Boyle? Yeah, sure. That said, I won’t begrudge Garland adapting his own script. And even if he’s lacking in directorial flair, his film is still good, smart sci-fi in a world that needs more good, smart sci-fi. It’s an ambitious first effort, well pulled off.