Alex Garland has a way with modern fantasy. Providing thoughtful additions to the zombie genre with 28 Days Later, soft and hard sci-fi with the likes of Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, respectively, and even to the comic book genre with the faithful, though drably directed, Dredd, he inverses the technique so often seen in our too self-aware culture of making light of concept while wallowing in melodrama. That same inversion is what makes his latest, Ex Machina, so good. He builds cerebral stories on far-out ideas, using concepts so temptingly thought-provoking as his jumping off points that it’s hardly a struggle to suspend disbelief. People are what’s really weird in his stories, going all the way back to his breakout novel, The Beach, where a bunch of expatriate backpackers attempt to create a tropical utopia without taking human nature into account.
Ex Machina, in which he earns his first credit as director, is closest in kin to Never Let Me Go, taking a long, hard look at the moral quandaries and existential crises of playing God, with the one major difference being that the subject matter has switched from clones to androids. It has all the hallmarks of a great Garland joint. Based on hard (enough) science without it distracting from or dictating the plot. Penetrating social commentary writ on a small scale. And, of course, a new character in Garland’s rogue’s gallery, right alongside Major West and Captain Pinbacker, Oscar Isaac’s rakish genius Nathan.
Nathan is the founder of uber-Google-like search engine Blue Book who has been using his absurd wealth to play with artificial intelligence. Eager to test his progress, he invites one lucky employee to hang out and judge his work in his secluded mountain retreat. That employee is Domhnall Gleeson’s amiable Caleb, and his work is Alicia Vikander’s Ava, a female android who Nathan claims is his best version yet. While it’s great to see Vikander’s star rising, her part may be the most disappointing, but through no fault of her own. She’s largely relegated to playing the stiff, polite robot, albeit with a minor mischievous streak. The most interesting parts of her story are hidden from view, so what’s most interesting onscreen is the interplay between Nathan and Caleb. Both are about the same age, but the lanky, naive Caleb is on uneven footing with the impetuous, plainspoken Nathan, whose intellect and detachment from reality have rendered his opinions of other people completely academic. Isaac gets to the most out of Ex Machina, amping up the lovable asshole act that he used to subtle effect in Inside Llewyn Davis, and to which he’ll hopefully add some Han Solo-ish swagger in Star Wars Episode VII (which costars Gleeson).
Garland is working with a strong structure here, using a setup consisting of a spoiled Turing Test (Caleb knows he’s speaking to a non-human) to stage a series of daily meetings between Caleb and Ava. The episodic pacing does make things feel a tad overlong, but Garland uses the formal boundaries of Nathan’s isolated retreat to postulate away without falling victim to the same loud cliches that seem to plague every sci-fi movie with dreams of loftiness. Conversely, he doesn’t get bogged down in technical exposition. Caleb embarks on one small rant of theoretical pitter-patter only to be shot down by Nathan, who’s bored with the mechanics of it all and just wants to hear the engine rev. It serves as a quick assurance that Garland has done his fair share of homework. Aside from that, he’s far more interested in the human side of things, as Caleb’s emotions sway from boyish curiosity to empathy with Ava, whose motivations may have grown beyond acting as Nathan’s plaything.
Emphasizing Nathan’s detachment and Caleb’s growing unease is the the rigid cinematography. Garland and director of photography Rob Hardy shoot through tons of panes of glass, separating and distancing characters from one another, and creating a captive atmosphere. The outdoor scenes also feel unworldly, shot amidst a lush green backdrop that, by design, feels intangible. Nathan and Caleb can only really stand and admire, and in its still beauty the mountainous terrain resembles an overly Photoshopped background screen for a computer more than a physical environment.
Highly touted sci-fi movies always attract fans hoping for an off-puttingly dense look at science (think Shane Carruth’s Primer, and witness that backlash against Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). It’s an illogical, arrogant stance, honestly, and Ex Machina has garnered its fair share of whiners due to its limited credibility. It’s to Garland’s credit that he conscientiously limits the sci-fi mumbo jumbo, using the tried and true method of showing just enough to leave people wanting more. His real objective is, like all good sci-fi, to study the effects technology will have on humans, while throwing in his own twists for good measure. This is artificial intelligence we’re talking about, after all. Also, if anyone were ever in need of a reason to appreciate Jackson Pollack, Nathan makes the most terrifically concise and astute observation yet on finding the wonder in the artist’s drip paintings. Ex Machina could walk with a quicker step, but Garland is as confident as ever, and if he plans on directing again soon, we can expect even better from him.