“Ex Machina,” from writer/director Alex Garland, marks yet another fascinating entry into the technophobic science-fiction genre – or, at the very least, the film has a skeptical stance towards the beneficence of technical advances. Over the course of a week, Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb must determine whether a robot, Alicia Vikander’s Ava, can pass the Turing Test. (For those who skipped “The Imitation Game,” that exam measures whether an artificially intelligent being can pass for a human.)
The deceptively simple set-up gets more complicated when factoring in Ava’s creator, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan. An irascible genius in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg (at least how “The Social Network” portrayed him) crossed with the unsettling articulation of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nathan has little regard for standard operation procedure or tradition decorum. He handpicks Caleb to administer the test under unorthodox conditions as well as tight supervision.
Given all these factors, “Ex Machina” becomes highly unnerving once events start taking a turn for the unexpected. Not since Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” five years ago has a film made me so distrusting of every character’s motives or uncertain of whether an event was actually happening. Remarkably, Garland achieves this terror with little more than the basic building blocks of cinema: tight editing, controlled and sparse staging, crisp camerawork.
But unlike many films in this vein, the visual does not constitute the primary attraction of “Ex Machina.” For Garland, who entered film first as a screenwriter, the words and the conversations really drive the film. As Caleb, Nathan, and Ava discuss such complex subjects as artificial intelligence, sexuality, and gender, Garland’s intelligent insight shines. See the film with a friend, and it assuredly will not be the last time you broach the subject with anyone.
Yet as I sat there, letting the rich dialogue wash over me and sink into my brain, I could not help but feel that “Ex Machina” was slightly out of place on screen. This kind of work might be better equipped to thrive on stage. Sure, the effect of Ava’s mechanics might not jar the viewer in the same way. But given that the action essentially takes place in one location and as exchanges between the cast of three, this chamber piece could benefit from the immediacy of human presence as a play. That alone could open up a whole new set of ideas for Garland to explore and exploit to thought-provoking effect. B+ /