Spectre, by David Bax
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of those science fiction movies where everything is so modern that it’s five minutes ahead, every design element so thoroughly considered that it begins to feel less like a film and more like a reel of commercials for heretofore unknown technology, architecture and interior decor. The difference here is that there’s a ruling intent behind the airless and meticulous construction of the filmic space. The clean, geographical lines of the house; its soft, manicured rugs; the way it sounds when the doors latch home and seal a room; all of this is luxuriously manufactured in an attempt to contain the messy humanity that seethes within. The house, the artificially intelligent robot and the film itself all yield to the same formal rules, only to help prove that people, thoughts and life (organic or otherwise) can never yield.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer at a Google-like firm who wins a company-wide contest to spend a week at the remote and luxurious home of the business’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, Caleb finds Nathan to be alternately chummy and forbidding but can’t help but abandon himself to the situation when he finds out the reason he’s there. He’s to conduct a sort of Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan has created, in order to assess whether or not her intelligence is real. Even amidst the wonder, though, there is menace. There are rooms Caleb can’t go into and questions Nathan avoids. When hidden cameras and unexplained power outages enter the plot, Ex Machina goes from being mysterious to being an actual mystery.
Gleeson is quickly becoming one of cinema’s most reliable young actors, able to play a calmly deranged murderer in Calvary or a tragic milquetoast in an episode of Black Mirror. If he has a niche, though, it would appear to be a twist on the Joseph Conrad hero who gets swept up in an awe-inspiring world but is hobbled by the bitter arrogance common to those who grew up both bright and unpopular. He did it last year in Leonard Abrahamson’s Frank and he does it again here. Gleeson may be cornering the market on sympathetic hubris.
Isaac gets to have the real fun, though. He gets to riff on the drunken bro stereotype of our nation’s male-heavy tech sector, padding around in bare feet, dancing with his sexy maid and then working off his hangover with a punching bag and weight bench at his personal outdoor gym with a scenic forest view. At the same time, he has fun playing the James Bond supervillain. His home could already be described as a lair even before he brings the allusion to the surface by joking (we assume) about having all the contractors who built the place killed to keep it a secret.
Nathan’s oddball behavior creates a tension when juxtaposed with the sterility of his surroundings. That disquiet is aided by the score, composed by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The repetitious synth bursts backed by drones and doorbell chimes are impeccably on trend and listening to the soundtrack album on its own doesn’t provide much beyond superficial pleasure. But in its natural environment, alongside Garland’s images, it’s properly and effectively disorienting.
Ex Machina does much more than simply put the audience on edge, although it sustains that feeling expertly. The two male leads question whether Ava has real intelligence or if she is just sophisticated enough to know how to pretend to. The film questions whether the same could be asked of any of us. We suppress our own psyches with constructed identities or, like Nathan does, with excessive substance abuse. Given how hard we try to present artificial, idealized version of ourselves, would any of us humans pass a Turing test?