“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is a pretty well-known phrase, but when it comes to genre films we should add expand that thought: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially if she was created in a lab by a madman.” This lesson goes back as far as 1939’s Bride of Frankenstein, and it’s one we seem to re-learn every few years with film like Deadly Friend (1986), Eve of Destruction (1991), Species (1995), and Splice (2009). Not only should we not mess with Mother Nature; we should also avoid creating super-human (and super-angry) creatures in her image.
This is only one of the juicy streams of subtext that you’ll find scattered throughout the excellent new science fiction thriller Ex Machina, a film that marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd) — and quite the auspicious debut it is. Not only because Ex Machina is a fiercely intelligent piece of speculative fiction that’s also dryly funny, darkly insightful, and serenely suspenseful — but also because it looks like a million bucks. (Actually the film looks like quite a bit more than that, but “it looks like $109 million bucks” is not a phrase.) Perhaps it’s just that Mr. Garland took mental notes while working with Danny Boyle for all those years, but you’d never guess that the astute and accomplished Ex Machina is anybody’s first directorial effort.
Here’s the plot in a very vague nutshell: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a gifted young programmer who is invited to spend a week with his stunningly wealthy and outrageously brilliant boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) so they can run a few tests on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a “female” robot whose brain houses the world’s most advanced forms of artificial intelligence. Needless to say, this is a very bad idea: two smug (male) geniuses on one side of the cage, and on the other is a (female) captive who was created to achieve sentience, only to receive a death sentence once that goal is actually reached. Or if not a death sentence, then perhaps just an electronic lobotomy and then a life spent as a bipolar billionaire’s plaything. Not sure which is worse.
If it seems sort of cruel to create something that’s smart enough to realize it’s nothing more than a disposable tool, well, that’s sort of what Ex Machina is about, only here the gender politics of the equation provide a fascinating counterpoint to the more well-worn “free will vs. basic programming” material. At its darkest moments, Ex Machina proposes that humans may actually enjoy destroying the tools we so often create in our own image, but Mr. Garland strikes a consistently astute balance between hard sci-fi, dark comedy, and trenchant social commentary.
Ex Machina could probably earn a few fans on its technical merits alone (as in the gorgeous cinematography, the fascinating production design, and the stellar special effects), but it’s the consistently compelling screenplay that deserves much of the praise. Equally deserving is the small but vibrantly powerful ensemble: Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac share several great scenes together, as the former portrays an idealistic student and the latter an arrogant master. Ms. Vikander is simply fascinating as a robot who believes she’s real but isn’t exactly sure what “real” means, and she shines particularly brightly in the numerous “interview” sessions that she shares with Caleb. There’s also an ominously shy and plainly unhappy personal assistant (of sorts) who is played remarkably well by Sonoya Mizuno, but the less said about her character in a review the better.
We’ve all seen what happens in popular fiction when scientists try to control the human spirit, and it’s never a pleasant result — yet somehow Ex Machina manages to bring a little novelty to a well-worn concept. Bolstered by four excellent performances and a smart, witty, creative screenplay, Ex Machina might not be the first film about the dangers inherent in giving robots free will, but it’s certainly one of the most accomplished.
Rating: 5 out of 5 burritos
This film was reviewed at SXSW 2015.