I saw the trailer for "Ex Machina" a few weeks ago and quickly put it on the top of my 'To See' list. When I went to see it yesterday, I completely forgot the #1 reason, a reason I wasn't reminded of until the credits began to roll at the very end of the film.
Written and directed by Alex Garland (writer of "The Beach", "28 Days Later", "Sunshine", "Dredd") - BTW, this was the reason - "Machina" is a sci-fi film that isn't overtly sci-fi, "Jupiter Ascending" sci-fi with other-world species walking around and people battling for control of distant planets. It doesn't take a huge amount of work to imagine these events taking place in the next few decades. “Machina” is something that could happen. This story is more rooted in reality, our current reality, and because of this less processing is required and our mind can concentrate more on the story and the characters.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, "Unbroken", "About Time") wins a company contest - He works at the world's most popular search engine and his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewelyn Davis", "A Most Violent Year") invites him to his extremely secluded estate/ test lab to 'hang out with the boss'. There, Nathan tells Caleb he wants him to conduct the Turing Test- classically, there is an examiner, a human and an AI, the examiner must figure out who the human is- on his newest invention, Ava, an artificial intelligence with remarkably lifelike features. Caleb is beyond excited to be involved in such an important part of this groundbreaking discovery. He begins to meet with Ava (Alicia Vikander) and they talk so Caleb can form a more complete evaluation. This becomes more than an evaluation and Caleb develops feelings for Ava. All the while, Nathan, eccentric to say the least, watches their every moment together. The isolation of the location and the personalities of the few humans begin to take their toll on everyone, human or AI.
I really think Domhnall Gleeson should be the Next Big Thing. He deserves to be. I have seen him in three different films recently, and he played very different roles in each. In "About Time" (a very underrated film, which you should see, from the director of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Love, Actually"), a funny, charming romantic lead. In "Unbroken", the sidekick POW. Now, in "Ex Machina", he is an everyman, the type of guy hired by the dozens to work at any internet company to keep the website running and interact with clients. You just know that Caleb's life is unexceptional and uninteresting, but he makes it work as well as possible.
He spends hours every day at his desk, very unassuming, going about his job. When the announcement is made that he has won the contest, he gets a notice on his desktop and he stares at it in shock. Then, co-workers come over and start patting him on the back as he still is trying to process what just happened. This moment is done without dialogue and it perfectly illustrates Caleb's life. It is a nice, quick way for writer/ director Garland to give us the complete view of Gleeson's character. There are not a lot of moments throughout that overtly illustrate parts of Caleb's life. This is a little difficult to get used to, but as you get deeper into the meetings he has with Ava, it begins to make sense. We learn a lot about Caleb as he learns about Ava and as he builds a relationship with her. Also, his interactions with Nathan reveal quite a bit about how he interacts with others.
It is nice work from the young Brit and provides yet another example of why he is going to be a big star one day.
Oscar Isaac, virtually unknown a year ago until "Inside Llewyn Davis" made him an Indie film star, turns in a very good, mannered performance as Nathan, the eccentric Billionaire who lures his employee out to his very secluded, secret, bunker-type fortress out in the middle of nowhere.
When Caleb shows up, Nathan - bald-headed with a beard, fond of working out, getting drunk and unleashing his brilliance to create new inventions – is lifting weights, wearing a tank top and workout pants. Not exactly what he imagined his boss would be doing or wearing. And throughout, Nathan is very casual about clothing. Really, he doesn't have a need to get dressed up. Nathan is a bit like Svengali pumped up on steroids. He's rich, brilliant, and highly manipulative.
At times, everything about Nathan veers a little too closely to a stock James Bond villain. The look, the bunker-like fortress, his normal attitude all make one think of Blofeld. But maybe that's just my overactive mind.
Isaac helps to blend the two sides of Nathan. On the one hand, he is seemingly normal, a guy who likes to hang out with his buds. On the other, there is a brilliant mind in there and you have to wonder if that has done any damage. It's a tricky balancing act and Issac handles it well, making a character that could so easily be a 'character' more real and life-like. Yes, he is a little over-the-top, but it is also surprisingly restrained.
As they spend more time together, they get to know more about one another and they begin to reveal deeper levels of their personalities.
Alicia Vakander also makes a difficult performance seem more plausible. An Artificial Intelligence, she is going to be less emotive than a human, but she manages to capture Caleb's interest, on a number of levels. And as their interviews go on, it becomes unclear who is testing who.
I like Alex Garland's style. His stories are sci-fi based, but not overtly so - they could happen in a future a few years off. And he tells things in a very matter-of-fact way, everything simply is. And this makes it easier to accept what is going on and get involved in the relationships and engrossed in the narrative. And because he does it so well, he is very kind to help us spend our time more wisely.
I have seen that "Ex Machina" is becoming something of a sleeper hit, breaking records at many of the screens it is playing, building up word of mouth. Consider the word built. It's an engrossing tale.