Review: “Ex Machina” (****)

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Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac star in “Ex Machina.”

Alex Garland’s provocative sci-fi/thriller “Ex Machina” hinges on three characters: Ava, Nathan and Caleb. Ava, played by the stunning Alicia Vikander (previously seen in “Anna Karenina,” “A Royal Affair” and “Seventh Son”), is our object of study, the artificially intelligent woman whose humanity—or lack-there-of—is called into question. Next we have Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a genius who at the mere age of 13 created Blue Book (think Wikipedia or Google), and has since become a loner of sorts living in a far-off land surrounded only by trees and green and the AI machines he creates. He’s authoritative and strong-willed and relentless when it comes to creating an artificially intelligent being, and Isaac plays this character to perfection. To act as Nathan’s counterbalance, we have Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s an inherently sympathetic and approachably handsome young programmer who works at Blue Book. After winning a company-wide contest, Caleb takes a long-winding helicopter ride to Nathan’s house to claim his prize of a week-long visit with the boss. And then… slow building tension and experiments and eeriness ensues.

With Vikander, Isaac and Gleeson we have the trifecta. Each of their performances is particularly nuanced and strong and vital to the success of the story, and each of them triumphantly carry their weight. Each character is just… just so. The entire film I’m left wondering to whom I should invest my earnest and feeble trust. For me, though Gleeson and Isaac are fantastic, Vikander’s Ava stole the show. She’s creepy and angular and dynamic and so wildly mesmerizing.

Garland effectively enlivens the material, creating characters that nearly overwhelm the world in which they live, and the tension and suspense doesn’t scream but simmer until everything comes to a loud, screeching halt. Garland is wonderfully patient in building his world, effectively creating this provocative moral and ethical dynamic while also setting the scene for what’s to come. He’s able to create this eerie anticipation within the viewer; I can’t remember the last time I was literally on the edge of my seat while watching a movie.*

With a film like this, it’s extremely difficult to narrow the focus enough and delineate the science enough to make it digestible. Garland does this wonderfully. Though this is his directorial debut, he’s no stranger to the sci-fi genre, having penned projects like “Never Let Me Go,” “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine.” And with a particularly sci-fi heavy filmography, Garland successfully improves upon every attempt at artificial-intelligence storytelling that preceded it. Films like “Transcendence” and “A.I.” are too grandiose and too large to seem, well, real. In “Ex Machina,” Garland chips away at the over-reaching, inordinately sophisticated, and too-large-to-grasp concept of artificial intelligence, and delivers this stunning, spiny and shudder-inducingly honest film. Though it’s not a perfect film, it’s a smooth step in the right direction. The dialogue isn’t too lofty, it’s rooted and realistic; at times Nathan tells Caleb to tone the science talk down, they’re just two guys talking over beers, and as a viewer, I felt like I was invited into the conversation. Garland, too, does something interesting with the format of the film, he segments the film into seven sessions. Right before Caleb meets with Ava, we see a black screen and white text saying: “Ava: Session 1,” and so on and so forth—little markers indicating her progress and evolution and integration. These sessions provide the framework on which the rest of the story is built.

I know at this point you’re probably think I’m being very liberal with my stars; I’m tossing out four stars to whomever wants to catch them. Not the case; it just so happens that I’ve seen quite a few films recently that I find to be very deserving. “Ex Machina” is one of them.

4 out of 5 stars.

And now, a quick anecdote: upon my recommendation, my younger sister saw this movie. Prior to her watching, I pressed upon her a basic, loose premise of “Ex Machina.” I said it was about artificial intelligence and that it was gorgeously rendered, and that I found myself rooting for Ava and how the whole concept of AI scares me nearly to death. I didn’t really talk about the tone or tenor or genre of “Ex Machina.” Well, she went to see the movie, she called me as she was walking out of the theatre, and was mad that I didn’t tell her it was a sci-fi thriller. Somehow, after everything I said, she was anticipating something lighter, a light and airy rom-com of sorts. That, sure, some parts might be described as scary. She said when I write this review I have to make it clear to people that ‘This movie will scare your damn pants off.’

*After writing this, I did some thinking. The last film where I was literally on the edge of my seat with nerves and anticipation and angst and all the feelings was “Seven,” (SPOILER!) right before Brad Pitt opens the box to find his wife’s head.

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