Modern cinema associates science fiction with outer space adventure (Interstellar), alien invasion (Edge of Tomorrow), and bleak visions of the future (Chappie). And on a bad day, we're reminded of Eddie Murphy's career-killing Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). Only rarely do we get cerebral sci-fi, which engages us intellectually as it ponders the future in ways we rarely consider. Importantly, it also does so without explosions or aliens popping out of someone's stomach.
In 2013, Her examined the possibility of falling in love with artificial intelligence, but that intelligence was relegated to Scarlett Johansson's sultry voice as an operating system. Ex Machina, which is set in the near future, extends that premise by providing a voice, face and partial body to the android, and the results are fascinating. Here is a quiet film with grand ideas, superbly acted and executed by a first-time director with clear aplomb and conviction. This is a movie for smart people to see together then discuss over dinner afterward.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an ambitious, nerdy and naïve computer programmer for a search engine technology company. He's thrilled when he "wins" the opportunity to join the owner of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), for a week at Nathan's research facility/home. Red flags emerge immediately: The compound is so remote that Caleb travels via helicopter through snowy mountains before arriving at Nathan's domicile in the middle of the jungle; Caleb is quickly asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement; Caleb is never given a clear explanation of what he's supposed to do; and Caleb is only allowed in certain rooms, meaning something ominous lurks behind closed doors.
This sounds like the setup of a horror movie, but writer/director Alex Garland isn't interested in frills (except for ample female nudity, which is egregious but titillating). The visual effects are subtle and part of the story, not flashy or attention-grabbing. At its core this is a meditation on humanity and artificial intelligence, and what happens when the lines between the two are blurred.
Speaking of which: Caleb is ostensibly there because Nathan has created a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that he believes is capable of emotions, and Nathan needs Caleb to test Ava. Is Ava capable of consciousness? Is she just responding to cues, or legitimately interacting on a human level? Caleb tells the already egotistic Nathan that Nathan would be "like a God" if he's able to create conscious life. We expect Nathan to have some ulterior motives, but they're not what you may think. In fact, each character's evolution is unpredictable, and just when you think you know where the story's headed there's another surprise.
The house has a staid, blandly futuristic appeal, lacking color and panache for the sake of glass walls and muted lighting. It's an apt reflection of Nathan's isolated existence, and is further accentuated by Isaac's performance, which renders Nathan a bit "off" but just short of totally crazy. It would've been easy to go the full "mad scientist" route, but staying a step shy of that is a tricky balance that Isaac pulls off well. Gleeson is solid as Caleb, but the real draw in the cast is Vikander, who's equal parts beautiful, smart, robotic and manipulative. The big question is, who is she manipulating? The script is too creative to make anything easy, which makes the final act all the more riveting.
Sadly, because this isn't the warp speed, alien-fighting, spaceship-exploding science fiction moviegoers are used to, Ex Machina's box office prospects are slim. For shame, because the themes are deep, layered and clever, and a second viewing is in order to fully appreciate the film's scope.