Ex Machina, the directorial debut of novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine and 28 Weeks Later…), is about artificial intelligence. Hey, but don’t worry — this one’s miles above other recent singularity-themed flicks like, say, Chappie, Lucy, or, you should pardon the expression, Transcendence. Icy, smart, unnerving, and intimate, this one — beautifully played by stars Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander — is a brooding psychological and philosophical thriller wrapped in the trappings of sci-fi high anxiety and dread about the inevitable intersection of humans and robots. But unlike most uninspired current sci-fi stuff, it’s not a loudmouth, slam-bang CGI fest nor a front-loaded mega franchise meant to numb you into submission and mow you down. Instead, it’s a talkative, quietly hypnotic chamber piece shot by Rob Hardy and paced by Garland in a hushed, creepy, cerebral style that recalls Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and reflects the intelligence of something by Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick.
It’s about an impressionable computer programmer (Gleeson) who works at a planet-dominating Internet company called Bluebook and who apparently wins an office sweepstakes — a rare, exclusive week at the remote, woodsy home of the genius, reclusive CEO zillionaire boss (Oscar Isaac). The brainiac’s estate, a home/research facility featuring eerie ultra modern production design by Mark Rigby, is a Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-Phillipe Starck-like fortress with endless walls of bulletproof glass, an underground compound, and more security gizmos than anyone can imagine. What’s being contained within? What’s being kept out?
Our hero soon discovers that the Bluebook boss is an arrogant, monstrous, boozy dick and megalomaniacal control freak. He also learns that he’s been specifically recruited to provide the human element in a “Turing Test” in which he must demarcate the line between human thought and the thoughts of androids. His target subject is a robot named “Ava” (Alicia Vikander), a creature endowed with a lovely human face and hands but with complex shiny mesh-and- titanium body parts. She’s been magnificently programmed to be inquisitive, charming, and she moves hypnotically and sensually. Like a film noir femme fatale or a captive princess in a tower, she desperately needs a knight on a white horse to help champion and liberate her. Of course, her creator has made sure to mention to the mopey, sad-eyed computer nerd that he has built the humanoid to be fully capable of being penetrated. She’s a walking, talking sex doll-plus. That’s when things go very wonky.
Thematically — a little Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Blade Runner here; a little Pinocchio and Her there — the movie isn’t anything more mind-blowing or innovative than you might see on, say, a particularly great episode of the Brit TV series Black Mirror, on which Gleeson has memorably appeared. But that doesn’t mean Ex Machina should be considered a rental. It’s so layered, sharp and it pokes at troubling questions about morality and about the fate of mankind when the A.I. population begins, inevitably, to think and act for itself. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” says Isaac’s character, quoting J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. Isaac is all sly magnetism, shades of ambiguity, and burning stares as the crazed, messed-up scientist. Gleeson (who’ll be front and center in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, along with Isaac) is terrific and Vikander, who stars in five other films this year alone, is a revelation.
As is Ex Machina, a movie that looks like something destined to be savored, watched and re-watched endlessly over the years. ***½