Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is a talented programmer who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with their reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there, Caleb is drawn into Nathan’s world, and finds himself part of an experiment to prove a new brand of artificial intelligence.
It seems like it has been a long time since we have had a film about artificial intelligence, but as much as Ex Machina presents itself as such, it is also a film about relationships, lies and manipulation.
Domhnall Gleeson continues his run of choosing great roles, with his turn as Caleb. Gleeson has shown, time and again, that he is capable of playing the every man, and does so again here. Gleeson easily makes Caleb the emotional heart of the film, and it is with him that our affection lies. Oscar Isaac treads a thin line between enthusiastic and creepy, incredibly well. Nathan turns from one of the guys, to megalomaniac within the blink of an eye, and it is the fact that Caleb is never sure how Nathan will react, that keeps the tension building in the film. Alicia Vikander rounds out the central trio as Ava, the AI creation that Nathan has built. Vikander keeps Ava curious and polite, but gives her enough emotion, innocence and warmth to keep her interesting. Vikander conveys gentle kindness through her body language and way of moving as Ava, and this grace adds a layer of humanity to the character.
The story, written by Alex Garland, feels familiar in some ways, and is definitely reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. There are times where it seems obvious where the film is going to end up, but through twists and turns along the way, it manages to keep the audience guessing. The notion of a soul is never expressly mentioned, but is obviously at the heart of the debates that Caleb finds himself in both internally, and outwardly.
As director, Alex Garland keeps the tension building nicely throughout the film. Since Gleeson’s performance is so strong, we utterly believe what he believes, but Garland also allows Isaac’s charm and confidence to put doubt into the film. The cinematography by Rob Hardy is both austere and beautiful, bare and abundant, and serves to underline the unsettling, disconcerting feel of the film.
In all, Ex Machina is a tense and tightly wound sci-fi film that is as much about human emotion and feeling as it is about artificial intelligence and cruelty. Vikander, Gleeson and Isaac are a strong and mesmerising central trio, although there are times when twists, turns and sabotage are easy to see coming. Still, a strong directorial debut from veteran screenwriter Garland, which cements his place as a director to watch.