By Gary Murray
Starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Running time 108 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Science fiction films have taken a glorious serpentine path over the decades. What has started out as masked monsters chasing young women has turned into the dominate form of entertainment. Along the way there have been tent post films that changed the way people thought about science fiction. They were serious science fiction works that affected future film makers. The films are such cinema as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is a very good chance that Ex Machina could be another film that changes how young filmmakers attempt their works.
The film starts with a contest. Set in the near future, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works as a programmer for a large tech company. He is the winner of a competition to spend a week with the reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and test his new product.
Following a two hour helicopter ride, Caleb is dropped off in a field. He is told to follow the river which eventually leads to a massive house in the woods at the bottom of a glacier.
After a few layers of electronic security, Caleb meets Nathan who is a strong Alpha male. Nathan lives a basic hermit existence with a single Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who does not understand English.
Showing Caleb the ins and outs of the house, he tells Caleb the rooms he can and cannot enter. Eventually, the young man finally sees Nathan’s project.
The project that Nathan is working on is Ava (Alicia Vikander). She is a mechanical woman, a synthetic being. She has a human face and hands but her body is silver and translucent. Her eyes are large and doe-like. There is a kindness in her manner, soft and gentle.
The project that Caleb is tasked to do is to find out if Ava has consciousness, if she is a sentient being or just a series of programs. Ava is in a glass room with no way to escape. Basically, she is a prisoner in Nathan’s home.
Caleb begins to ask Ava questions to establish the parameters of her intelligence. When the power goes out, Ava changes her tone and tells Caleb not to trust Nathan. Caleb is taken aback by the abruptness of the request. It is fearful yet somehow endearing.
That night, Caleb and Nathan have dinner. Nathan explodes at Kyoko and Caleb begins to wonder if Ava is somehow telling the truth. The next day, Caleb finds more human emotions in Ava, such as an ability to create. We also find out that Ava has the ability to shut off the power and uses it to tell Caleb her secrets and wishes. Her big wish is to be around people.
The story is of how Caleb begins to fall for Ava. But in this world, nothing is exactly the way it seems to be and on one is exactly who they seem to be. It is part thriller and part cat and mouse game between the three principles.
Just when the screenplay goes in one direction, it makes another turn. The film is written and directed by Alex Garland the writer behind one of the great zombie flicks 28 Days Later. This film is very much a pre-Star Wars style of science fiction, in the days when science fiction had an edge that was prevalent in 1970. The entire production looks like a film of that era, a time when science fiction was more about ideas than spaceships. There is this classic feel in the production, a world not too far from our own.
Easily the most fascinating performance is by Alicia Vikander. She has to play an innocent but at the same time one gets the idea that there is something nefarious behind those eyes. In so many ways, she is like the robot Maria from Metropolis. She is a mechanical woman who is a manipulator. This is a brilliant performance that will be remembered years from now.
Oscar Isaac delivered a brilliant performance in the little seen flick A Most Violent Year. This is another powerful performance by the actor. At times, he’s friendly and at times he’s a raging psycho. The more the film spools out, the more wonders if he is the manipulator or the one being manipulated.
Ex Machina is a film that looks better on paper than in the execution. There is a slow burn to get to the ending, loads of talking and little action. Some of the surprise revelations are not that much of a surprise. In the end, it is a good film but not a great one.