If you’re going to go all-in with the gorgeous and chilling and sometimes ludicrous “Ex Machina,” if you’re going to buy into the lofty debates and the wiggy humor and the borderline misogynistic notion of the perfect woman, you’ll have to check your logic at the ticket counter.
(WARNING! The next few paragraphs contain mild, spoiler alert details.)
Example. Oscar Isaac, rapidly becoming one of the most magnetic actors on the planet, plays Nathan Bateman, a reclusive, genius billionaire tech guru with a shaved head, the long beard of an eccentric relief pitcher and a disarming passive-aggressive personality.
Nathan lives and does his research in a huge compound in the most remote corner of Alaska. Apparently Nathan has exactly one household employee: Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a Japanese servant who doesn’t speak English.
Hmmm. So who dusts and cleans the dozens upon dozens of rooms in the compound? Who gets the groceries and the booze? Who trims the landscaping?
There are myriad other head-scratching questions one might have after experiencing “Ex Machina,” but as a cinematic mash-up of “Metropolis,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “My Fair Lady,” “Blade Runner” and “Her,” among other films, and with one of the most impressive CGI/human characters I’ve seen, this is a dizzyingly effective sci-fi/thriller.
It’s a small film with big ideas. There are essentially only four characters. In addition to Nathan — who’s a combination of Steve Jobs and a mad scientist — and his assistant Kyoko, who’s…well, I don’t want to give it away; there’s Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a bright and eager programmer, and Alicia Vikander’s Ava. More on Ava in a moment.
Caleb works for Nathan’s company, Blue Book, the dominant search engine in the world. He wins a company-wide contest to spend a week at Nathan’s compound, participating in a Turing Test, i.e., an experiment gauging an artificial being’s capacity to demonstrate human behavior, including intelligence and emotion.
Enter Ava. She’s Nathan’s latest creation, and she is wondrous. Ava is covered partially in a metallic mesh-type skin, but we can literally see through her, to the inner workings of her brain, her “organs,” her skeletal structure.
Ava sometimes tilts her head like a curious animal in the wild, she speaks in that pleasant, slightly robotic tone of the American Express Phone Lady or Siri, and she is aware of her origins as a Nathan-made machine — but she seems more human than artificial. She isn’t smart like a computer. She’s smart like someone who knows how to program computers.
Nathan welcomes the eager and bright Caleb with open arms and open bottles of vodka and beer. When Nathan isn’t lifting weights or barking commands at Kyoko or getting falling-down drunk, he engages in head-spinning conversations with Caleb about computer codes and artificial intelligence and Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava, in which she seems to be testing Caleb as much as Caleb is testing her.
Writer/director Alex Garland (who penned “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later”) turns up the tension slowly, notch by notch, scene by scene. Nathan’s compound has a personality of its own. At times it feels like a reinforced Man Cave, what with Nathan’s passion for flowing drinks and free weights and whatever the deal is with the mute Kyoko. (A scene in which Nathan and Kyoko execute a perfectly timed dance number as if they’re contestants on “Dancing with the Stars” is one of the looniest things I’ve seen in a while. It’s exhilaratingly stupid.)
At night, though, the compound is the perfect setting for a horror film. Caleb’s room feels like a prison cell. The ubiquitous cameras and monitors provide jarring visuals, as Caleb begins to realize there’s a lot more to this Turing Test than Nathan originally explained.
It’s no surprise when Caleb begins to feel affection and maybe something more for Ava. She is sweet and alluring and sympathetic and perhaps in need of rescuing. She’s also beautiful and she seems to know that. (The puppeteer Nathan crudely explains to Caleb, that yes, Ava has been built to experience ALL the sensory pleasures available to humans.)
(One clanging false note: the security key cards used by Nathan and Caleb to navigate the premises. These key cards become increasingly important, and one can help but think, there’s no way the world’s foremost tech genius, who’s guarding a multi-billion-dollar experiment, would rely on the same device you and I employ to get out of the parking garage.)
In films such as “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Most Violent Year,” Oscar Isaac, the man with two first names, has shown an uncanny knack for playing quietly intense, often unlikable characters that nonetheless have an undeniable magnetism. Same thing here. At one point Isaac has a one-word response to a challenge from Caleb, and it’s just hilariously perfect. Never has “OKAY!” said so much.
Gleeson is perfectly cast as the super smart but naive Caleb. We see through Ava through his eyes, and we understand how he is so quickly taken with her.
The Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (“The Fifth Estate”) infuses Ava with the just the right mixture of iciness, vulnerability and mystery. It’s a star-making performance.