Ex Machina: Alex Garland’s Striking Directing Debut–Sleek, Provocative, Erotic Sci-Fi

Alex Garland’s directorial début, Ex Machina, which screened at SXSW, is a stylishly sleek, often provocative meditation on the nature of artificial intelligence and the evils that science can lead to.

Garland, better known until now as the frequent collaborator of Danny Boyle in such films as “28 Days Later” and “The Beach,” shows an impressively assured approach in handling unconventional material, able to sustain tension in his storytelling almost up to the end, and imbuing his tale with a commendable visual style, which sometimes compensates for shortcomings in the storytelling and characterizations.

The plot revolves around a computer coder named Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a young, bright, lonely man from long Island, who has earned a week at the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of BlueBook, the search engine company for which he works.

While the specific treatment may be new, the more general issue of robots that can pass as human being, is not.  It has been explored, in different variations, in films of the past three decades, all the way back to Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner,” not to mention Kubrick’s scenario for Spielberg’s underestimated “A.I.” in 2001.

Nathan lives by himself on an enormous wooded estate reachable only in a helicopter.  He loves getting drunk, often by himself, wanders around in gym clothes even when he does not exercise, and never quite lets Caleb forget who is boss.

Nathan assigns Caleb to conduct a Turing test (essentially a test to see if a computer can fool a human into thinking that it is also human) on a sexy robot named Ava (played by the gorgeous looking Alicia Vikander).  Some parts of her body are flesh, the rest is metal or plastic, a nice visual metaphor for Ava’s semi-human status.

As we expect right away, the experiment is not a traditional Turing test. For reasons that cannot be specified here, Nathan hopes that Caleb would develop an emotional attachment to Ava, and perhaps the other way round as well.

Always alert, Nathan observes all of their interactions via CCTV, except when the power blinks off, which happens rarely but offer opportunities for different kinds of interactions.   During those brief moments (when the screen turns red), Ava, seemingly on her own (and semi-independent), reveals to Caleb that Nathan’s motivations might not be as purely scientific as they seem on the surface.

For two thirds of the film, Garland builds a seductively mysterious atmosphere that befits the nature of his narrative.  Here is a sci-fi that knows its strengths and limitations as a chamber piece for three characters (and three good actors), rather than special effects driven.  Most of the film is set indoors, unfolding as a series of intimate interactions between Nathan and Caleb, or Caleb and Eva.

The very ending is ideologically satisfying, even if it comes rather abruptly, negating the darker, gloomier, and pessimistic tone of what precedes it.