Audacious, powerfully acted and thematically rich, Ex Machina is easily one of the best films of the year. Simultaneously eerie and funny, entertaining and esoteric, and featuring what is sure to be one of the year’s great villainous performances from Oscar Issac, Ex Machina is a film destined to linger in the cultural imagination. It also couldn’t have arrived at a better time as studios prepare to once again unleash a glut of blockbuster excretions.
Since its release approximately one month ago, Ex Machina has been drawing comparisons to Her, the Spike Jonze joint from 2013 that featured a lily-livered Joaquin Phoenix getting amorous with a potential A.I. The beginning of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina make this comparison seem credible, with the opening scene focusing again on a nebbish male diligently at work in a computer-centric environment.
That man is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young coder and gawky beanpole who works for the largest search engine in the world (here called Blue Book instead of Google). When this nerd wins a company-wide contest, he is whisked away to spend a week in the home of Nathan (Oscar Issac), his company’s world-renowned founder and CEO.
Nathan lives in perhaps the most glorious retreat in the world, a bunker nestled in a lush mountainous valley, sitting adjacent to a rushing river. The man himself is also striking. He is disarmingly casual, with a bushy beard, a shaved head and a clear penchant for t-shirts, shorts, sweatpants and getting bombed on a daily basis.
Nathan begins to introduce a feckless Caleb to his world, and it quickly becomes clear that there is something far more substantial planned than a week of drunken hedonism in the mountains. The Jobsian Nathan has created what appears to be a potential A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to administer the “Turing test” to determine whether or not she is truly sentient.
In crafting a world existing on the cusp of the singularity, Garland opts for a less is more model. There is no laborious exposition to be found here, no Nolan-esque monologues explaining each and every facet of this near-future vision. Instead, Ex Machina is rather sparse in its design, unconcerned with parsing the time and circumstances that would make the development of A.I. feasible.
This also extends to the film’s characterizations. None of Ex Machina’s primary players seem to have some sort of lucid plan. Their motivations more closely resemble blunt, amorphous drives. Ava, who is a cinematic creation that shows how CGI can be positively harnessed (as opposed to Age of Ultron, for example), makes it explicitly clear that she wants out of Nathan’s compound yet beyond that remains a mystery. Caleb is even more obtuse, seemingly driven by little more than a love for scientific possibility. If anything, Caleb is the role given the short end of the stick by Garland’s script, often coming off like milquetoast killjoy when compared with Nathan or Ava.
The character of Nathan is probably the most cryptic but ultimately emerges as the most fascinating of Ex Machina’s primary trio. While his genius-level status may be somewhat hard to believe, his litany of quirks and contradictions make him captivating, especially when you add in Issac’s immense charisma.
Like all great characters, Nathan’s actions throughout Ex Machina feel simultaneously surprising yet expected. Additionally, like all great villains he is the most fun to watch throughout the film and in many scenes seems to be having an absolute ball amidst the collective misery of Caleb and Ava. He is a complex figure; his broish, lip-smacking glee is juxtaposed with a nuanced albeit deep sadness, captured in his fatalistic view of humanity’s future and in his attempts to drown himself through booze. These various characteristics create a rich figure who is threatening and pathetic. It’s an impressive piece of work, yet it’s also a somewhat bittersweet performance when one considers Oscar Issac’s future filmography.
Currently, the actor is set to have his life dominated and his soul ensnared by two tired franchises. One can’t begrudge him of course for wanting to set himself up financially for life; yet, it is still sad to watch Issac act the hell out of his part in Ex Machina knowing that he will spend the next few years having his butt crammed into the cockpit of an X-Wing in The Force Awakens and buried under make-up as the boorish X-Men villain Apocalypse.
Unlike how those future films will likely turn out, Garland thankfully gives Issac and his other actors a dark, meditative place in which to work. While not all of the story points gel together perfectly, he also produces a climax that is depressive and beautiful. The film also remains abstract enough in its final scenes for its running questions about consciousness, human nature and unchecked power to remain open-ended, which may rub some the wrong way. But considering how the rest of the film is a dense and difficult work, that’s exactly how it should be.