It is lamentably true that the age of brainy science fiction is long behind us. What was once a genre that looked at ideas and questioned the nature of human identity has been diluted into a genre that is almost exclusively nestled in the comforts of action and candy-coated visual effects. What’s left of science fiction is a genre of artificial flavors. Yet, after seeing Alex Garland’s head-spinner Ex Machina it is gratifying to report that someone still sees sci-fi as place of ideas.
Ex Machina is many things but above all it questions the nature of what it means to be human. What is human? What makes humanity? Are artificial personalities real or just part of the programming? What’s interesting is that Garland wraps those questions up in a movie that is part thriller, part horror, part love story, and mixed with a dash of Hitchcockian delivery. There’s an action scene at the end of the movie, but it doesn’t feel perfunctory – the movie earns it.
The story unfolds gradually, Garland is smart enough to tell this story as it unfolds rather than make everything clear at the beginning and then plug in a course to the end. All the way we keep guessing, not sure what’s really going on. It opens with a good-hearted programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, he was Bill Weasley in Harry Potter) who is flown by helicopter to a remote forest where he will spend a week examining the research of a noted scientist. How remote? When he gets out, the pilot instructs him to follow the river until he reaches the facility.
The scientist is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), a butchy and bearded brainiac who came up with a new programming code at age 13 and turned it into a corporation that would make Zuckerberg look like a pan-handler, and then funneled the profits into a secret research operation to perfect artificial intelligence – yup he’s working on girl-bots!
Nathan wants Caleb to study his work which could easily change the course of human nature. The most accomplished creation in Nathan’s lab is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a half-finished robot with a human face and a silvery, skeletonized body that looks less like a series of plugs and wires than like a work of art. Through a series of interviews, Caleb’s mission is to learn and understand exactly how Ava’s brain functions. What comes to light instead is that Caleb begins to like Ava. She apparently likes him, and they seem to connect on a personal level. So the question that plagues Caleb is whether or not Ava actually feels things or whether her advanced programming is tricking into thinking that he is. So who’s playing who? What’s really going on here?
What happens next forces Caleb to question not only the nature of Ava’s personality, but in many ways his own sanity. Ex Machina is a thriller, but a smart one in which we only really know what Caleb learns. The film takes place exclusively in Nathan’s hideaway research facility, a place in which Caleb’s key card opens some doors but not others. Eventually, slowly he comes to find out what Nathan is hiding. We know he’s nuts, but we only slowly come to find out how nuts. Ava is an accomplishment but she’s far from the only creation to come out of Nathan’s lab, most unnervingly there’s a mute Asian bot named Kyoko acts as his servant but may also act as concubine.
The performances here are better than they probably should be. Oscar Isaacs is a lot of fun as the Dr. Frankenstein, all full of tricks and twisted words that are always cloaked in question marks. Domnhall Gleeson is great as Caleb, a good joe who thinks he’s going mad under Ava’s spell. But, it is Swedish actress Alicia Vikander that weaves a spell. Her body is a silvery skeleton but her face reveals an upfront vulnerability that leaves you questioning whether or not it’s by design.
Her physical performance deserves praise, she not just playing a robot, but a being struggling to find the patterns of human motion. I’m aware that much of her performance is given over to CGI, but Vikander makes Ava come alive in a way that makes us question whats on her positronic brain.
Ex Machina is the movie that Spielberg’s A.I. should have been. It has a sense of direction. It plays like a thriller with a brain, peeling back the layers of its story to reveal twist after twist and coming up with a third act that is a whopper. It is difficult to really tell too much more without giving anything away (trust me, I’ve given away nothing), except to say that Garland has a way of building tension just in silences and looks. What’s really going on here? That question is answered over and over because the movie never stops surprising us. Meanwhile it mixes in references to mythology, history, physics, and visual art into casual conversations that is simple enough that the techno-babble doesn’t go over your head. It’s a movie that you are thrilled by when you’re watching it but find yourself thinking back on its questions, it’s mysteries and it’s ideas when it’s over. This is not only great sci-fi, but it the greatest kind of sci-fi.