In Ex Machina, writer-director Alex Garland plays and teases and toys with the audience with such a deft, thorough ease, we forget this movie marks his first time behind the camera. Garland, a novelist turned filmmaker, had previously written several high-profile screenplays (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd) that, whatever their faults, demonstrated a deep love and understanding of genre, particularly science fiction.
But there was nothing until now to indicate that Garland was a gifted visual artist, too. A lot of important story elements in Ex Machina — clues and indications, some of which will require a second viewing, about this tricky movie’s destination — are conveyed exclusively through images. You have to be paying attention to notice the worrisome crack at the edge of the glass partition that separates Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sophisticated and intelligent robot with the face (and curves) of a supermodel, from Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the home of his genius, possibly mad boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Nathan, who built Ava all by himself and wants to test his creation with a flesh-and-blood subject, watches his employee and his mechanical woman interact through thick, transparent walls. Nathan wants to discover if Caleb is capable of falling in love with his android, which upends the audience’s expectations from the start: In this sort of movie, the focus is almost always whether a robot can feel human emotions, not the effect such a feat would have on a real person. Spielberg dabbled a bit with this idea in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but his focus was on machines, not people.
In Ex Machina, Garland’s primary concern is his flesh-and-blood characters, even though they are not nearly as showy (or beautiful) as his main attraction, the vulnerable, delicate girl with a heart of steel and wires. The movie subtly incorporates gender roles and expectations into its narrative, using the manner in which the two male protagonists deal with the female Ava to invert the usual societal standings between men and women. Despite its sci-fi trappings, Ex Machina winds up being much more of a heated, tormented gothic than a futuristic spectacle, ably brought to life by the three leads, each operating on their own wavelength. The fact that Garland manages to cram in speculative ideas about the perils of a society that relies too heavily on technology is a bonus. In Ex Machina, love hurts, big time, for man and machine alike.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno.
Writer-director: Alex Garland.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.