by Alex Lawson
It is the mastery of that precise dynamic that makes veteran screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut such a powerhouse. It is challenging but not condescending, thoughtful but not heady, deliberate but about as far from boring as it gets. It is, quite simply, one of the best movies of the year and one of the best sci-fi movies in several years.
But the charm and effectiveness of Ex Machina obviously goes beyond its ability to sidestep the landmines that roughed up its predecessors in the genre. The story is a simple one. An ambitious young programmer at the world’s largest search engine named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the chance to spend a week at the lavish and secluded estate of his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). While there, he will act as the human half of a Turing test, designed to test the sentience and awareness of Nathan’s newest creation, a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The crispness of the writing is not a surprise, given that Garland has penned a engineered series of pleasing genre fare over the past decade (Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, 28 Days Later…) and once again penned the screenplay here. What is surprising is that Ex Machina might be better than all of those films because of what a natural fit Garland now seems to be in the director’s chair. His camera glides around Nathan’s exquisite post-modern mansion with dread and and intrigue creeping at the edge of every frame. On a more basic level, the movie is absolutely gorgeous, as Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy build us a world that seems at once futuristic and timeless, transforming some weird hotel in Norway to place that really does have the effect of a dreamscape.
Garland also displays an absolute mastery of tone. The movie is unquestionably dark and at times downright chilling, but he is able to inject enough levity and eccentricity to allow Caleb, and, by proxy, the audience, to let our guards down and fall even deeper down the rabbit hole.
As Ava begins to suggest to Caleb that Nathan has not been entirely forthright about his intentions for the project, the tension among the three players in the house begins to escalate. But because Isaac has smartly laid bare all of Nathan’s personal foibles for much of the movie’s running time, he becomes a kind of villain that I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen before, one whom you are never quite sure whether to laugh at or fear in equal measure.
I will hold true to my vow about not revealing the movie’s secrets, and I remain a firm advocate of going into a movie as blindly as is practicable, but there is a development late in the movie that one might fairly term a “twist.” It is the sort of legitimately jaw-dropping (I only use hackneyed phrases when they are literal, as was the case here) quality that arises out of something more than sheer shock value. I sat in the theater after the credits rolled and just marveled at how plainly the film explained to me precisely what was going to happen and yet still managed to hit me like a damn sledgehammer to the stomach.
That’s the kind of movie Ex Machina is. It’s been burrowing around in my brain for days now, making me laugh and cower and contemplate again and again and again. I’m hard-pressed to recall even a single false note in the whole damn thing, and to the extent that there even were any, I either forgot or do not care.