SXSW Review: EX MACHINA
Meet Ava. She is beautiful, she is thoughtful. She is sensual and riveting. She has secrets. She will surprise you.
Like the artificial intelligence at its center, Ex Machina is an experience that is both cerebral and sensual. It's riveting. It has secrets. And it will certainly surprise you.
The first directorial effort from screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), Ex Machina is startlingly visual, a thing meant to be seen as well as felt. The story unlaces in much the way it would on the page, following a tight thread that would make for a sharp and engaging short story in the vein of Gibson or Heinlein - or Garland. But the film is so discernibly ocular, so precise in its gorgeous visual effect, that it's easy to forget that Garland has until now only been known as a master of the written word. (Of course cinematographer Rob Hardy surely deserves a large share of the credit there.)
Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a coder for Blue Book, the world's most powerful and innovative search engine. He wins an employee lottery to be helicoptered out to a beautiful, remote location, home to Blue Book's reclusive founder, Oscar Isaac's Nathan. Nathan wants Caleb to spend the week with him and with his wondrous invention, Ava (an incredible Alicia Vikander). "Have you heard of the Turing test?" Nathan asks Caleb. Caleb responds, the implication dawning at once, that of course he has. Pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing conceived of the test in 1950 to scrutinize a machine's ability to exhibit behavior indistinguishable from a human's - to be able to convince a human of its own humanity. Nathan wants Caleb to apply this test to Ava.
You may think you know what to expect when you read that Oscar Isaac is playing a reclusive genius. You do not. What a weird, surprising, wholly effective choice to play Nathan as a weight-lifting bro, insouciant and frequently drunk, entitled and bratty. Here is a man who thinks of himself as a god: he has created life in Ava, and she belongs to him. That he created life in the form of a sexual, adult woman - and that the only person occupying his solitary home outside of himself and Caleb is a beautiful, solely Japanese-speaking servant whom he treats with similar ownership - speaks to this entitlement, to the belief that a woman is a thing to be possessed and dispensed with at his own convenience. Here is a man of incomprehensible genius, capable of creating something magnificent, something that will change the world forever - and yet he cannot see past his own small, ugly perspective. And what better foil to this muscular, charismatic, sometimes sinister man than Gleeson, who seems at first a little, harmless presence but whose basic decency informs Caleb's every word and action?
Ex Machina is the sort of science fiction film we all crave: it's gripping entertainment (and the score, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, will have you in knots of anxiety) that says something, that stays with you. It catches its audience off guard with nearly every scene, dark and surprising. The film has style and substance, and it has something else, too, something strange and lasting that will soak into you and leave you feeling it hours after the very cool final credits have rolled.