Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a computer programmer working for the world’s most popular search engine, Bluebook. After winning a company-wide competition, Caleb is flown out to the secluded house of Bluebook’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), for a weeklong intellectual visitation. Upon arrival, Nathan reveals to Caleb that he was actually chosen to spend the week testing a secret humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose cleverness subtlety exceeds that of her maker’s.
The film is presented in a structure that flip flops between Caleb’s interactions with Nathan and Caleb’s sessions with Ava. Thus, it’s a film about conversations through which each of the characters attempts to unravel one another’s individual person suits of concealment and hesitation. From there, a game of intelligence ensues in which awareness and understanding crookedly coexist.
While the Ava sessions are seemingly the highlight of the film, it is actually Caleb’s interactions with Nathan that provide the most intrigue. The two characters are both so similar and yet so different that their relationship evokes the duality of human nature. While Ava is “the monster” to Nathan’s Dr. Frankenstein, Caleb could also be considered as another personage of Nathan’s because of how contained and influenced he is by the circumstances that Nathan has placed him in.
All psychology aside, Ex Machina is a fascinating film that works on so many levels. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander are each at the top of their game and Garland proves that he can successfully bring his stories to life on screen without the aid of a high profile director. In terms of mise-en-scène, it’s a very confined movie but its themes and ideas provide it with a grand scope. Because of this, the film has a good sense of world building while also maintaining the necessary intimacy required to fuel the tension between characters.
The fun thing about Ex Machina is that, despite its powerful tension, there are moments scattered throughout that ease up on the external mood while still maintaining a progressive intensity. One such moment is when Caleb confronts Nathan’s housemaid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), though she proves to be incommunicable. Suddenly a drunken Nathan appears and the next thing you know, he’s tearing up the dance floor. In other words, it’s probably one of the best scenes of 2015 and I might not be kidding about that.
Overall, Ex Machina is exactly the kind of science fiction movie audiences deserve during this era of oversaturated action blockbusters. Even if Mary Shelley’s magnum opus has been excessively retold in popular culture, Garland fashions a uniquely smart movie that holds its own. From writing successful novels and screenplays to brilliantly directing this movie, I’m excited to see where Garland goes from here.