Science fiction is the stuff of robots, artificial intelligence and mad scientists since the dawn of the genre, and the new sci-fi film Ex Machina takes on the familiar tropes in cerebral, intellectual fashion, perhaps too much so, although the notes it strikes are refreshing in their starkness. A spare cast of simply three characters (and another who doesn't speak) trapped in one remote location, debating philosophy and exploring the psychological trappings of powerful attraction to a being of mechanical creation, may not be the stuff of thrilling cinematic action, but the performances and dialogue give us a highly intelligent, interesting take on the genre, one designed to engage the attention span in ways not often asked of audiences in big budget action spectacles.
Domnhall Gleeson is Caleb, a 26-year-old coder for a company called Blue Book, the powerful search engine created by Oscar Isaac (the mad scientist in this futuristic Frankenstein story). Caleb wins a "ticket" to Isaac's remote estate hidden somewhere in the mountains through a contest set up to find the subject for a test designed by Nathan, Isaac's character. When he is brought via helicopter and left to stay on the premises for a week, he discovers that Nathan is an eccentric who's spent his days creating artificial life, and his invention of a female robot, Ava, is meant to be the subject of the Turing test that he wants Caleb to perform on her, in order to find out if she possesses true artificial intelligence. Caleb and Ava interact through a glass wall, as she is kept in isolation and must use her developed skills of manipulation through the emotions that have been implanted in her, to achieve her own hidden agenda.
You may have guessed already that Nathan himself has ulterior motives and other secrets, which of course he does, and which of course reveal themselves in the course of the story, but the bulk of this film revolves around the conversations between Caleb and Ava, and Caleb and Nathan, involving why and for what purpose Ava has been built, and how she functions. Not technically, that would be too "textbook" and dry for the audience (as Nathan literally says at one sly moment in the movie), but more in the vein of how Ava makes Caleb, as a straight, hot blooded young male, feel about her. Ava herself is a striking cinematic creation (maybe the only one in this movie), with just Alicia Vikander's face displayed on a part glass, part wired body with unfinished limbs and no skin besides the hands and head. She doesn't act fully human, with all the physical tics and unemotional vocal tones of the android she's supposed to be, but I suppose with Vikander's human face, that's all it takes for Caleb to find himself falling for her in spite of himself.
Despite the interesting visual image of Ava, Oscar Isaac is the most charismatic presence in the movie, elevating Nathan to seem not quite mad, just arrogant and possessing the god complex that anyone who invented the world's most powerful search engine at 13 years old probably would be. A fine actor who's shown himself capable of carrying films with a powerful and commanding screen presence, this is yet another impressive example after Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. But the movie itself is a cold, rather distant rendering of a familiar story (your too successful invention gone rogue), with just enough interest demanded by Isaac and commanded by the visual power of Ava, that it passes for a more thought provoking sci-fi than you'd find in a typical robot adventure. Just don't go in expecting too many fireworks.
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