Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a virtual textbook of classic science fiction tropes. To describe it, you could start with its allusions to Maria from Metropolis, continue on to mention its inheritance of the perennial master-monster dynamic that goes back at least to the Golem legend, and then analyze its place in the seductive-computer lineage that runs through films as cheesy as Electric Dreams and as classy as Her. More concisely, you could just say that it’s the movie you’d have if the Fembots from Austin Powers were taken very, very seriously.
Ex Machina is an extremely elegant film, extraordinarily disciplined in its attention to tone and pacing. Writer/director Garland drops the audience into a captivating, eerie world and never missteps in his exploration of its contents. In a manner that’s incredibly impressive for a debut director, Garland marshals his team—including cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby—to create a gorgeous yet unsettling alternate universe in which it’s a pleasure to lose oneself for 108 minutes that fly by.
The film is so well-made that the plot only needs to be okay, but it’s better than okay. Garland takes us down a road we’ve trod many times, but never experienced in quite so artful an incarnation. The story concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer who wins a trip to have a sort of vacation with Nathan (Oscar Isaac)—the charismatic genius who founded Caleb’s Google-like employer—at Nathan’s home in a remote wilderness.
The reason for the remoteness becomes clear when Caleb meets Ava, an android who’s transparently so—and by “transparently,” I mean that parts of her are literally transparent. Other parts are not, though—in classic SF tradition, Nathan has simultaneously perfected artificial intelligence and expressive synthetic flesh. The flesh in question belongs to the heart-stopping Alicia Vikander, with eyes so big and sympathetic that you don’t even notice her uncanny resemblance to the Svedka vodka robot.
Ava is the effect in the film that really needs to work, and she does—spectacularly. She’s worthy of the android hall of fame, and she’d surely recognize her clunkier kin in hundreds of lesser movies and a few better ones (among them Blade Runner), though perhaps Eva’s closest relative is the aptly-named Alicia in the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely.” Like that robot, Eva’s dangerously easy to fall in love with, immediately prompting questions as to whether one is falling for a who or a what.
Ex Machina is one of those smart movies that really aren’t that smart—in the sense that it’s not a movie about ideas, despite superficial indications to the contrary. It’s also just as problematic from a feminist sense as you’d expect: it fails the Bechdel Test even if you count woman-shaped robots as female characters, and it could be a case study in the multiple dimensions of the male gaze. Nor is it particularly creative—the denouement is satisfying, but not surprising. Well, there is one big surprise, which I can reveal without spoiling the plot: the dance party is the best scene in the movie.
On its own terms—which are, after all, time-honored—Ex Machina is an outstanding and sometimes brilliant example of cinematic craft. If it’s not as profound as Bergman, well, it’s a lot easier to watch. Even the shots with a razor.