Many science fiction movies out there today are big on scale and small on ideas. Ex Machina (2015), the directorial debut of Alex Garland, is small on scale but big on ideas. There are no explosions or the spectacle of overwhelming special effects, and the drama is mostly confined to one location with four characters, one of whom never speaks.
Yet, the film is about nothing less than the nature of consciousness, the evolution of artificial intelligence, and self-determination. But a dry science and philosophical lecture the movie is not. It is a character-driven story about manipulation and hidden agendas that really turns the screws and forces the viewers to question everything they see and hear.
Ex Machina draws inspiration from the likes of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and The Shining. It's the story of man creating life and dealing with a creation that looks and acts human, but the question remains whether it is human. Meanwhile the isolated, claustrophobic setting brings to mind paranoid memories of the Overlook Hotel.
Caleb (Dohmnall Gleeson) is a programmer for a mega-company in the near future when he wins a contest to spend the week with the company's founder and owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his home for a top secret project. The project is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan wants Caleb to determine is really a sentient A.I. or merely a responsive program. Caleb is intrigued if somewhat uneasy, but as the test continues, he begins to question the true reason he's there, especially once Ava tells him discreetly that Nathan cannot be trusted. And what's the deal with Nathan's mute servant Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno)?
Take Ava. She has the face and figure of Alicia Vikander, but we can see her limbs are transparent. We can see the tubes, wires, and other gadgetry that comprise her, including in her head. Not once do we look at her and think, wow, what great effects went into making her look like that. Instead, watching Ex Machina is to believe she is a real robot on screen.
The setting is just as crucial. Nathan's home is apparently in the Alaskan wilderness, away from the rest of human civilization. Here, he has essentially set himself as a god, which he refers to himself a couple of times. The compound is hi-tech, with the latest surveillance and security equipment, and it's stocked with most modern conveniences, including a nice kitchen, booze, and high-priced artwork. Yet, in other places, it feels like a cramped prison, no windows in the bedroom, and the maze-like corridors are sharp, white, and disorienting.
When Caleb enters it, the home, at least in portions of it, look carved out of rock, and when he meets Nathan, the latter is practicing MMA moves on a punching bag. The dichotomy is fascinating. Nathan has created a shrine to man's accomplishments - technology, wealth, art - and yet, he is still something of a violent caveman. He drinks too much, is very much an alpha male with the way he dominates Caleb and treats Kyoko, and with that beard, Oscar Isaac sort of resembles a Cro-Magnon.
Ex Machina begins as a low-key sci fi drama, but Garland builds it in such a way, it has become a horror show, and you can't realize when it happened. It just fits so naturally and makes so much sense. Like The Shining, Garland uses subtitles to count the number of sessions Caleb has with Ava. Nathan becomes afraid he's going insane, and in one scene, he's so paranoid, he uses a razor in a gruesome way to find out whether or not he might unknowingly be one of Nathan's creations.
At another point, he witnesses Nathan and Kyoko engage in a drunken, synchronized dance. In almost any other movie, such a scene would have felt out of place and unintentionally funny, but here, it's like Caleb has realized he's stepped onto the disco floor from Hell. The room is bathed in eerie red light, and the dancing is so weird, it crosses the line from goofy to creepy.
We can debate whether what Caleb finds hanging in his closet makes Nathan a serial killer, but I think we can agree it makes him a perverse, power-mad creep. Even though the robots aren't human in the biological sense, the imagery of disembodied faces on the wall and lifeless, hanging bodies is the stuff of nightmares.
Caleb feels close to Ava, but the feelings aren't really reciprocated. She uses him to survive, but as soon as that's accomplished, she drops him without a thought or emotion. The true horror of Ex Machina is not the sight of a rampaging robot, but the knowledge that we have created and unleashed something is beyond our capability of controlling, and it will have no qualms about killing us or leaving us behind as we go the way of the dinosaurs.