Trust humans, or trust robots. Choose one. Can’t be both.
For no reason whatsoever, young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to spend a week with reclusive billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he remains secluded from the rest of the world in his palace in the mountains. Though Caleb isn’t sure as to why Nathan, of all people, would choose him to spend some time with and get to know, isn’t fully known; however, it’s an opportunity that Caleb will not pass-up. But when Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, he soon realizes that something is clearly up with this guy and not in a good way, either. Nathan drinks a whole heck of a lot, only to wake up the next day, work his ass off, and purge it all out of his system, only to then repeat the same pattern the next day. Not to mention that every time Nathan says something to Caleb, it ends up making the later feel incredibly uncomfortable in a manner that he doesn’t know how to discuss without offending Nathan, and possibly having him kicked-off this lovely land of paradise. And, let’s not forget to mention that Nathan has Caleb working with a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), who may or may not be able to think like most humans do.
So rarely does a sci-fi movie come out where it doesn’t feel like the same threads are constantly being traced over. While some movies definitely try to be as far-out as humanly possible to avoid these problems, they mostly end up stabbing themselves in their own feet and just being huge, insane piles of mess that can’t really be cleaned-up; they’re their for the whole world to see and not make any sense of. Sometimes, that’s how the creators behind it prefer it to be, and other times, you have Christopher Nolan, in that he wants you to understand what he’s throwing your way, but instead of doing so, you just roll with it and try to hope he takes you to the promised land.
Basically, what I am trying to say is that making an actual good sci-fi movie, without it seeming like all else that has come before, is a total challenge.
This is a challenge, however, that Ex Machina is more than willing to go up against, even if the themes of artificial intelligence has been practically done-to-death by now. However, writer/director Alex Garland knows and understands this, and rather than trying his hardest to break away and make some sort of everlasting message about the way technology and humans are alike, Garland keeps everything as ground-level and as simple as possible. Though the movie is definitely a sci-fi flick in nature, Garland seems more interested in the complex relationship between the characters here, and because of that, the movie’s far more than just “another flick with robots in it”.
It’s a strange oddity that truly does go wherever the hell it pleases, with absolute reckless abandon. Which definitely makes it all the more difficult to discuss without getting down to the nitty gritty of what happens, why and what Garland is trying to say. Trust me, I shall do my best in keeping the secrets hidden, but if a little something slips out, consider it not intentional; there’s just something about this movie that makes me want to reveal everything and anything about it. Yet, at the same time, I realize some people want to be treated to chock full of surprises, and it’s totally understandable.
Because honestly, surprises is what you’ll get here.
Garland keeps the movie bumping along in a way that feels like we’re leading towards something, but what that is, is never fully known. We’re told early on that Caleb is given a task that he can either complete, or not complete, but if he does go through with it, it will most likely change his life, as well as the rest of humanity’s. That said, throughout the whole duration of this movie, the weirder things appear to be, the more the reason behind Caleb’s trip begins to blur. And whereas some movies I would be ticked-off at the lack of closure, here, I just decided to roll with it and see where exactly Garland was going and whether or not any of it made sense.
To be honest, not much of it makes sense, but there’s something interesting about that. Rather than going through the motions of a story that could be literally told to anybody who hasn’t read sci-fi before and already predict the ending right away, Garland throws as many curve-balls our way as possible, without ever seeming like he’s just bored. The movie’s twist and turns come with mood; where, one second, you’ll be laughing at an extreme dance-formation, and the next second, terrified because of someone’s threatening demeanor. The movie literally goes from one end of the spectrum, to another, and Garland doesn’t seem to have a problem with not making any sense of it; he’s just having a grand time throwing us down so many different hallways.
And most of the unpredictability does come from the performances here, which are made all the more impressive by the fact that we hardly get anymore than four characters here. There’s maybe one or two side characters thrown in here at the beginning, but once Caleb gets to Nathan’s place, it’s literally just four people, all walking around the same place, talking to one another and testing each other’s limits. This in and of itself is fun, but the cast is so talented, that it goes one step further and makes these characters complex specimens.
For instance, Nathan, at the forefront, seems like the typical billionaire a-hole, until you realize he isn’t. He gets trashed all day, falls asleep, wakes up, works out, and is constantly making Caleb feel awkward by the way in how he’s trying to seem “cool” and “inviting”, but is doing just the absolute opposite. It’s pretty hard to be sly about telling a person where they can and cannot go in your house, but trust me, watching Nathan handle every conversation he has with Caleb, where they could have gone to learn more about one another and bond like most males do, will make you want to buy each and everyone of your friends a beer in hopes that the know your cool, and actually mean it.
There’s more to Nathan however, and whether or not it’s sinister, is totally left up to us to watch and see. Thankfully, as always, Oscar Isaac puts in solid work as a guy who always seems to be acting like a dick, but he just doesn’t know it. However, there’s still humanity to this guy where you can see that he may actually just be a lonely dude in need of some friend-time with anybody who is willing to partake in it. Or, he could just be a total d-bag. Either way, Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing just about every second and proves why, once again, he’s the one actor we should all be looking and paying attention to.
Caleb’s the perfect counterpart to Nathan, because he’s not just meek, mild and nervous, but because he’s a tad clueless to any sort of hostility that may, or may not be coming from Nathan’s side. Doomhnall Gleeson is great at showing this Caleb guy in a light that doesn’t make him just seem like a nerd, but a nerd that has a heart, and most importantly, has one that needs some sort of love in it. Wherever it comes from, he oh so desires it and to watch as he comes to the realization of this and still try his hand at understanding Nathan, is engaging.
It’s weird, but once again, cool to watch.
The one who truly does steal the spotlight from these two, however, is Alicia Vikander as Ava, a robot who can think and act like a human, but is still a work-in-progress. This is where I really have to hold myself back, but what I will say is this: Vikander is a revelation in this role. With only being able to use her expressive face, Vikander is able to make us feel something for this robot character, that we don’t even know is good or not; we know that she wants to be a human and to be freed, but to what extent is that? The questions here that lie, may be answered.
Then again, they may be not. Check out for yourself.
Consensus: Strange, surprising and unpredictable, Ex Machina deals with a lot of ideas, but lets them sit second-hand to the exciting performances for these well-written, complex characters, who help put the broader theme of everything into perspective.
8.5 / 10