Written and directed by Alex Garland, the 2015 science fiction film Ex Machina feels a little like “Frankenstein Meets Bluebeard.” This is Garland’s first time in the “big chair” but his name may seem familiar to fans of horror and science fiction. Alex wrote the brilliant 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go which are just three cinematic treats from this man’s pen. This tale of A.I., the Turing Test, and its surprising conclusion is a sublime and clever offering.
Starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year, Drive), Domhnall Gleeson (Black Mirror, Unbroken), Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Seventh Son) and Sonoya Minuzo (Beauty and the Beast, Venus in Eros) Ex Machina, pronounced “makina” follows Caleb Smith (Gleeson) as the winner of a contest to spend a specified time with tycoon super scientist Nathan (Isaac) where he will participate in a Turing test of Ava (Vikander) his latest A.I..
On top of Garland’s film proving that there are different levels, and kinds, of Geeks, it appears that the director wanted to pay homage to several different films, books and themes. All this, while almost subliminally planting the idea that search engines are the windows to our souls. Nathan’s billions are all made by his search engine, Bluebook which he realized provided information to the owner while giving results of searches to the users.
The curious thing about this modern prometheus, aka Frankenstein, is that his creation of life, actively hates and loathes him. Perhaps the message here is that only one Deity should be creating life. While alluding to the Mary Shelly story, the film also gives a nod to The Seven Wives of Bluebeard. Not just in that Caleb’s keycard will only open so many doors, which follows Bluebeard’s last wife and her set of keys but that at least one, if not more, are off limits.
Added to this Bluebeard theme are the “dead” A.I. bodies kept in Nathan’s room in their own personal closets/coffins. While there are not seven, there are four, five counting the “live wife” Ava, and six if one counts the mute Kyoko, whom Nathan tells Caleb speaks no English and is human.
Techno geek Nathan as creator leaves much to be desired. He treats his children with little empathy and can conceivably be seen as cruel. Rather interestingly, it seems that each A.I. longs to be free and while Nathan kills each creation, wiping their memories clean, enough residual information remains to influence the new machines to resent their creator.
The interactions between, first, Caleb and Nathan – awkward and, from Caleb’s end dully pragmatic, and then Caleb and Ava are mesmerizing. At the beginning the young contest winner is overawed and uncertain of how to talk to his benefactor. He goes through the same agonies of poor communication when he first converses with Ava. Treating her as a subject to be studied rather than a person. Something that she not only picks up on, but apparently resents as well when she turns his own questions back on Caleb.
As the story progresses, Isaac changes from benevolent and eccentric creator to something a little more menacing.
Garland expertly blends in several nods and winks to the audience. For example, when Kyoko attacks Nathan later in the film, the music on the soundtrack which accompany the incident is from the 2002 Japanese horror film by Sion Sono Suicide Club, aka Suicide Circle. The notes played are from the character Rolly’s song titled, aptly enough, Suicide Circle. Kyoko is clearly a Japanese styled A.I. making this a wonderful and deft touch by the first time director.
Oscar Isaac turns in a brilliant performance as the driven, awkward and lonely creator. Isaac is one of those actors who can portray menace and touching vulnerability all in, seemingly, one breath. In the scene where he is drunk and believes he has lost his keycard, the actor becomes a small frustrated and lost boy. This man has been dangerous (A Most Violent Year)and toughly tragic (Drive) and in this film he really is the guy that most people would love to spend time with.
Domhnall Gleeson is brilliant as the contest winner who undergoes several realizations through the course of the film. Finally learning that he has been “played” from day one.
Alicia Vikander may well go down in history as being the only actress able to exude so much attractive sensuality with only a portion of her face showing. Regardless of her beauty, the performer conveys volumes with her eyes and facial expressions. A slight curve of the lip, eyes that light up with either interest, anger or delight and the ability to make us not only care about this artificial intelligence but to fall in love with her just as Caleb does.
This film has a mix of humor, pathos and gives us a fascinating look at man as creator. It also asks the question, that Ava asks as well. How would it feel knowing that your creation hates you? Ex Machina is thought provoking and damned entertaining. There are moments that will make you chuckle and others will provoke tension and a certain amount of uneasiness.
Alex Garland has given us a real 5 out of 5 star film. Do not wait to watch this one, head over to any of the streaming services online and watch this first time masterpiece.