Main cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb Smith), Oscar Isaac (Nathan Bateman), Alicia Vikander (Ava), and Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko)
Director: Alex Garland
I always felt that Alex Garland’s works are on the pretentious side, but his directorial debut Ex Machina is pretty solid. I can see why Morgan was called a rip-off of this movie when that one came out, but to be fair, now that I have watched this one, I think the only similarity in those two movies is that we have a central character who is not considered human, but Morgan is more interested in being a more straightforward violence and guts thing while this one is aiming to be a more cerebral kind of thriller.
Caleb Smith is a brilliant but somewhat awkward programmer at Blue Book, a search engine company. One day, he “wins” a contest which sees him getting to stay at Nathan Bateman’s remote island, and I say “wins” because it was all planned beforehand. Caleb is introduced by Nathan to Ava, a robot with a sophisticated AI that allows her to behave almost human-like. This is Caleb’s test: Nathan wants him to conduct on Ava a Turing test – a test used to evaluate just how much her behavior and thought pattern resemble those of a human being. As days pass, Caleb finds himself becoming more and more sympathetic to Ava, whom in his eyes is a prisoner in Nathan’s high-security mansion, even as Nathan becomes increasingly boorish and even threatening.
There are only two possible outcomes here: one, Ava is sincere, and two, Ava is playing Caleb. Given that Alex Garland also wrote the script, it’s not exactly hard to correctly predict the “twist” of this movie. Also, the movie tells the audience outright what the twist is going to be, so those who are surprised are likely those who are hoping that Mr Garland won’t be that obvious in his directorial debut. It’s all so meta, I know, but at the end of the day, Ex Machina is a straightforward, simple – almost beautifully so – story that cleverly encourages people to overthink and completely miss the forest by being too busy analyzing the trees, so to speak.
The movie wouldn’t have worked so well without the cast. Alicia Vikander doesn’t just show off her entire body – or maybe that is her body double? – she also plays very well a character who alternates between haplessness and seductive cunning, one that plays on a gullible and rather naïve man’s chivalrous instincts like a professional violinist. Oscar Isaac could have easily become over the top in his role as the douchebag deluxe, but there is some kind of compelling magnetism to him that keeps me intrigued by this Nathan fellow. Is Nathan really that much of a tool, or is he playing Caleb as part of the plot he is spinning around the poor fellow? Meanwhile, poor Caleb is quite the hapless sod, but Domhnall Gleeson manages to make the poor fellow likable and even sympathetic.
In the end, when Ex Machina reveals its hand and shows that it isn’t about androids needing to be given the same rights as humans as much as it is a dystopian tale of how humans cannot predict the behavior of the AI they create, I doubt many people will be floored. If anything, the only ones floored are those who hadn’t been paying attention. Getting there is the exquisite part of the movie experience, though, and the cast does a superb job in taking me all the way to the finish line. Alex Garland and the rest of the crew have done a good job too: the pacing is tight, the movie is gorgeous to look at, and everything feels just right. This one is definitely worth a look.