Having been a fan of Garland for many years now, I was excited to see what he can do behind the camera, and he has about as an assured debut as anyone I’ve seen in recent memory. Garland has written some excellent films steeped in sci-fi over the years (his scripted Never Let Me Go might be the most underrated film of the current millennia) and with Ex Machina he continues to show that this is a genre he understands and appreciates as well as anyone. With Ex Machina, Garland demonstrates a smart and considered take on the sci-fi subject at hand, AI with a body, and extrapolated out his story naturally without ever resorting to fear mongering of technology.
Ex Machina briefly opens with our lead, Caleb, winning a “contest” that allows him to go off and spend the week with his company’s owner, Nathan, in his secluded home, but the situation quickly becomes more than Caleb could imagine. Nathan’s company is essentially a uber Google, making him accessible to just about any resource he needs and Nathan has chosen to use these resources to create the world’s greatest AI. From here, Caleb is asked to perform a sort of Turing Test with the AI, housed in a female robot named Ava.
For the sake of spoilers I will describe the plot none further, but Garland’s script does an amazing job of layering the story and what we get to know about Ava through a series of conversations between her and Caleb, alternating with discussions about those conversations between Caleb and Nathan. The film is a small picture in that it only really has three characters that never interact in groups bigger than two, but the ideas and things Garland’s script will get you thinking about make it a large and fun film to unpack.
The arc of Ava is particularly well executed, with us along for the ride through Caleb’s eyes, never quite knowing who is doing the manipulating of the situation. Garland’s twists and turns aren’t grand moments of gotcha filmmaking, but are instead all extremely well crafted and make perfect sense as they play out. We shouldn’t be surprised, as everything is laid out there for you in a logical way, but you will find yourself caught off guard more than you would expect.
Garland’s ability to shoot such a CG heavy film so seamlessly is something he deserves a lot of credit for, as the artists who brought Ava’s mechanical side to life around Alicia Vikander’s fantastic performance deserve a ton of credit for making it all feel natural. Vikander has been a rising star the last few years and she is great yet again here as the robot Ava. Vikander gives so many dimensions to Ava, manipulating us along with Caleb into her hands, showing a depth to the character that lets us believe the complex perfection of her character’s AI programming. Garland lets Vikander tell us so much visually through her performance, the whole film is wonderfully assured in its visual storytelling, that I am sure there are a lot little bits and pieces to discover on a second viewing.
Oscar Isaac might even be better than Vikander though, as he exudes a gray area of charisma that sucks you in while keeping you just at an arm’s length away. Isaac is one of the best actors we have working today, and Nathan is another role that gets to show us a whole other side we didn’t know Isaac had in him. The character is just a wonderfully complex role for him to play, Isaac humanizes Nathan completely, never letting us doubt his intelligence or lose understanding of where Nathan is coming from. Domhnall Gleeson is solid as the audience proxy Caleb, and while he has the least flashy role in the film, the evolution of the character might be the film’s most interesting arc. Garland subverts the male power dynamic with subtle brilliance through Caleb, and while Gleeson/Caleb might seem like the heroic core of the film, that isn’t entirely clear cut if you step back and look at it more closely.
Ex Machina is one of the best films of the year. Garland has firmly planted himself as a director to watch, as he gets great performances out of Isaac and Vikander who are two of our most underappreciated rising stars. Garland’s storytelling and visuals are extremely assured for a first time feature, as there are a number of staggering shots spread across the film. If you like smart, thought provoking sci-fi, it doesn’t get much better than Ex-Machina, but it’s the compelling little character drama layered on top of all of the film’s big ideas that make it so damn watchable.