Ex Machina is a rare movie in today’s cinema world. It’s a smart sci-fi movie, made by a filmmaker with an obvious love for films as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. The movie asks what it means to be alive and might possibly be this year’s version of Her. Sadly, while it is smart and it is extremely original, it falls short of those three aforementioned movies thanks to some problems with the script and technical design.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a computer programmer who wins a contest to visit the reclusive CEO of the Internet giant that he works for. This CEO is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a very eclectic man who has proven to be a genius when it comes to computer programming and has become almost a mix of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. His Internet search platform has revolutionized the way the Internet is used, but he has much larger designs.
Nathan has perfected artificial intelligence and has actually created a female AI robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He has made her attractive, for a number of reasons, and Caleb soon learns that he was not brought there through a random contest. He was specifically chosen based on a series of traits compiled through his Internet searching habits. These traits made him the perfect person to run a series of tests on Ava, to determine if she could actually adapt and grow as an intelligent life form, exceeding her original programming to become a self-sufficient being.
Anyone who has watched movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Terminator franchise knows that this is a bad idea. However, the idea in this movie is that Nathan isn’t concerned about science fiction in his creation. He is concerned about scientific facts. He has his problems, which become evident as the film moves on, but he is just trying to create the perfect artificial intelligent being because that is what geniuses do.
Therein lies the biggest problem in the movie. Through the entire film, the viewer is led to believe that Nathan is the villain. We see how poorly he treats his housemaid (which is clearly not a normal person). When Caleb gets to know Ava more closely through their interviews together, the power randomly shuts off in the house, which cuts the video feed that Nathan is watching. That is when Ava expresses fear that Nathan wants to destroy her when the tests are done, and she wants Caleb’s help. The problem here is that nothing that Nathan does throughout the entire movie makes him someone that is seen as a bad guy.
Without Nathan really coming across as bad, and a rich history of AI movies to bring to memory, it is easy to spot the fact that Ava might be the character to fear here. That makes Caleb, who is slowly falling in love with her, seem like a schmuck the entire movie. Domhnall Gleeson has kind of fallen into this schmuck role in his career, playing the same kind of characters in the Harry Potter movies and last year’s indie hit Frank. As a matter of fact, this is similar to Frank, with Caleb wanting to help someone by doing what he thinks is right, even though it is really a stupid decision.
On the other hand, Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Nathan, a character that is at turns charming, hilarious and aloof, but always interesting when he is on the screen. Yes, Gleeson brings an innocence that makes you fear for him, but Isaac brings a charm that makes you never really cheer against him. With past brilliant performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year and upcoming roles in X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Isaac is about to become a major Hollywood player and he deserves every second of it.
As for the technical design flaw, that comes through in the score. The movie is such a quiet and meditative look at technology, manipulation and the idea of what it means to be human, that the high tech squealing of the score when the filmmakers want you to know that things are going wrong is just grating. Honestly, the pomp and bombast of the score could have been eliminated completely and it might have made for a better experience without losing any of the climax’s impact.
However, the movie, for all its faults, is one that keeps you thinking about it after it is long over with. When the ending comes, and you realize not only what happened but what the fate of the characters were, it is a truly horrific and frightening film. The manipulation here is much scarier than the thought of a global robot war or Armageddon. Those are catastrophic fears, but the climax of Ex Machina is an internal fear of betrayal and destruction.