* * * *
Smart, stylish and enthralling, the artificial intelligence thriller Ex Machina fires on all cylinders as a first-rate piece of science fiction, superbly written, performed and mounted as the debut feature from screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland. As science fiction, it employs some hard science and plausible fiction with some thoughtful ruminations on humanity and love. It is the first great film of 2015.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a computer coder at a Google-like Internet search giant who, after winning a contest, is spirited to the remote Alaskan home and laboratory of reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The assignment? To evaluate the artificial intelligence of a stunning new robot through a series of communications designed to gauge independent thought, reasoning and emotion. But who is evaluating whom?
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a lithe android with a metallic body, transparent solar plexus and beautiful human face atop all of the circuitry. In one week’s time, Caleb and Ava will engage in seven cognitive and behavioral sessions, and between each Caleb and Nathan’s philosophical and scientific ideologies clash.
And that is about all I should tell you about the film’s story, a surprising one that keeps us guessing for its entire running time (delightfully so during an impromptu dance sequence where the versatile Isaac cuts loose), and though it is quite clear that love is on order for Caleb, whether Ava ultimately can reciprocate is one of the picture’s central dilemmas in a story that takes on some heady themes, including man’s dual desires to both play god and subjugate women, a dark thread emerging late in the picture during a stunning sequence involving the identity of Nathan’s repressed servant and plaything, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Meanwhile, the budding attraction between Caleb and Ava just may be strong enough to orchestrate her escape. Can a human in love ever truly know the heart and mind of his intended?
Gleeson is perfectly acceptable and Isaac far better as the hard-drinking, agile, alpha-male mad scientist with a god complex. But as good as Isaac is, ex Machina belongs to Swedish star Vikander (A Royal Affair), whose sleek, suggestive dialogue delivery, combined with a rare amalgam of innocence and (perhaps) calculation, reminds us of the effectiveness of just the right actor in the right role.
By turns mysterious and familiar, remote and sympathetic, dependent yet empowered, caged and yet free, the actress hands us a fascinating character whose motives we want to believe, even when we are not sure we had better. And it’s an impressive physical performance as well, one of shifting emotions where a single vocal inflection or change of expression renders Ava alternately childlike, sensual, empathetic and maybe conniving.
Garland, best known for penning Danny Boyle’s The Beach, Sunshine and 28 Days Later, proves an extraordinarily detailed director in creating and sustaining a cold, detached yet oddly affecting mood (think Fincher), greatly enhanced by Mark Digby’s inventive production design (the picture was shot in a Norweigan hotel) and a most unique score from Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, reaching its apex during a climatic showdown between creature and creator.