Ex Machina ✮✮✮1/2
Of Gods & Monsters
by Glenn Lovell
A.I. goes A.W.O.L. in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” a minimalist science fiction thriller from England that’s justifiably turning heads on these shores for its brilliant production design, brainy cat-and-mouse narrative, and vice-like tension.
Though there are threads here of Isaac Asimov’s robot series (“I, Robot,” etc.), the real progenitor of this near-future mystery is the little-known cult film “Demon Seed,” based on a Dean Koontz novel and released to mostly indifferent reviews in 1977.
As in the Koontz adaptation, about a rogue computer called Proteus, this new arrival fields a smug Dr. Frankenstein ‒ here called Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) ‒ who, in his quest to play God, ultimately outsmarts himself. His most memorable line? No, not “It’s aliiiive!” Try “OK … Fucking unreal.”
Also like “Demon Seed,” “Ex Machina” ‒ which takes its title from the Greek deus ex machina (improbable plot device that saves the day) ‒ is a small film with big ideas. You can think of it as a three-hander in which genius inventor, inquisitive houseguest and sentient creation talk and talk … and talk, all in an effort to size up the competition. In some ways this tightly orchestrated drama is to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” what a chamber quartet is to Beethoven’s 5th.
Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, a talented programmer at a search-engine company. As a reward for winning an interoffice competition he’s invited to the boss’s secluded compound-research lab for a week to beta-test an amazingly life-like robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). His charge: talk to the android, challenge it ‒ “see if she has consciousness.”
Of course there’s a lot more to this directive than Ava’s creator let’s on. Caleb, we soon guess, is as much lab rat as Ava. This becomes increasing clear as, during periodic power cuts that render surveillance cameras useless, the synthetic being shares her worst fears, i.e. of being decommissioned, switched off, and replaced by a newer model.
Gleeson, screenwriter on Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” does a bang-up job of creating and sustaining a near-palatable sense of dread his first time behind the camera. “Ex Machina” may strike you as both talky and claustrophobic, but it never lags and eventually casts a haunting spell with its glacial cool cinematography and artful set design and CG effects. Its strongest asset: Isaac’s seriously oddball host, who, constantly muttering to himself, follows in a long line of evil geniuses dating to Charles Laughton in “Island of Lost Souls.” The garrulous Bateman proves a morass of contradictions: he’s a health-nut drunk, a passive-aggressive inquisitor … an insufferable but fascinating playmate.
If Gleeson’s Caleb pales in comparison, that’s understandable: His is the thankless task of breathing life into a hardwired geek who, in falling for a gel and fiber-optics Galatea, turns, unaccountably, churlish. Swedish actress Vikander (“A Royal Affair”) fares better as the translucent, newly minted A.I. Her female-coded robot is at once serene and intimidating, the curious newborn and clever seductress.
Is “Ex Machina” a genre masterpiece, the work of a newly minted visionary? Not quite. Third act problems have Bateman suddenly losing double-digit IQ points. You might call the transformation a case of deus ex machina.
EX MACHINA ✮✮✮1/2 With Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander. Written, directed by Alex Garland. 108 min. Rated R (for violence, profanity, nudity)