Science fiction has had it rough at the multiplex. Due to changing trends and ever-increasing ticket prices, the genre has had to lean towards more action elements in order to entice audiences. While this can lead to the occasional great flick (Looper and Edge of Tomorrow are two stellar examples), it means that smaller and more meditative stories don’t often find their way to a wide release. So, when something like Ex Machina comes along and proves that quiet sci-fi movies can be just as impacting as blockbuster behemoths, it deserves notice and appreciation. It certainly helps when Ex Machina is such a great example of what these kinds of films can be.
The story of meek programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a contest to spend a week at a research facility with reclusive tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is about as geographically limited as you can get. The film almost never leaves the facility, but the reason for Caleb’s stay is where the mind of the movie proves to be boundless. Nathan has created the first fully functioning, artificially intelligent human being, named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and wants Caleb to converse with her to see if she passes for a real person. It’s classic science fiction stuff, but when the film market has been diluted with explosion porn and textbook Campbellian hero’s journeys touting themselves as sci-fi, such a simple story is refreshing.
That simplicity permeates throughout the entire picture, from the sleek design of Nathan’s home/lab to the streamlined cast. Writer/director Alex Garland has proven that he’s capable of shelving the more bombastic qualities his scripts are known for in favor of a laser focus on characters and ideas. While this does mean the movie is nearly actionless, it’s not interested in spectacle. Ex Machina silently lures you into its philosophical web with a tale of mystery and deception, provided by a cast of characters that are all equally compelling.
The three principle characters form an intricate triangle, each one balancing on their own while supporting each other. Caleb’s initial awkwardness at being around Nathan soon gives way to distrust and unease, while Caleb’s relationship with Ava becomes more intimate and revealing. At the same time, Nathan’s outward attitude is very inviting and even fun, but the more we learn about how he treats Ava makes him a complicated villain. All of this is bolstered by incredibly naturalistic performances from all of the actors. Nothing is showy or stagey. These all feel like real people, even when one of them is artificial.
Mood is often one of the most polarizing aspects of films. I feel that Ex Machina‘s restrained sensibilities could be misconstrued as boring or slow paced. The pace of the film is actually very brisk, kicking off the story immediately and continually building upon our curiosity. With such a clinical look and demeanor, Ex Machina tricks you by making the construction of the film feel robotic while the actual story itself is exploring the very meaning of humanity. It’s a similar problem that viewers of Blade Runner can fall victim to if they are expecting something more propulsive. I don’t think Ex Machina would be described as a slow burn as much as it is a constant simmer.
Ex Machina feels like the Black Mirror version of Her: an examination about our relationship to technology at an individual level, but instead of crafting a treatise on romantic entanglement like Spike Jonze did, Alex Garland is much more interested in examining the darker qualities of the human animal. This has led to a film that is haunting, unnerving, and deeply entrenched in the kind of introspective science fiction we can always use more of at the movies.