Dave White
Ex Machina Review

Dave's Rating:

4.0

Computer says "No."

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a twentysomething computer coder, wins a contest at work. The prize is a week spent at the home of his company's founder, the reclusive genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Whisked off via helicopter to Nathan's secluded compound in the deep, impossible forest, Caleb enters the underground lair, all million-dollar minimalism and secret rooms, a tech-gasm to live in, like if the people in Dwell had major F-You money.

Nathan quickly disrupts the sheen of serenity. He makes Caleb nervous. Nathan's a hard drinker who works it off each morning with the punching bag and antioxidant smoothies, walking around in basketball shorts and softballing "dude" at Caleb every time they interact. This "cool boss" is much too overtly chill to trust, referring to his new relationship with Caleb as "instant pals and so on."

Nathan's home doubles as a research lab, where he's putting the finishing touches on a female robot he's been building. Her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander). She's part fake skin, part connective tech-webbing, fully machine, and programmed to be capable of independent thought. Caleb's job is to spend time with her administering the Turing test, which determines a machine's ability to behave like a human. Call it the beta stage between 2015 and the heartfelt future of Her, then swap a little menace for Her's warmth and sorrow.

That's because something is not quite right. Maybe it's Nathan, with his jokes that aren't jokes and his egomaniacal posturing. Maybe it's Ava, with her frustrated self knowledge of her not-quite-human predicament. It wouldn't be fair to give away any more, but remember, this is all taking place in what is essentially a cabin in the woods. If movies teach us anything, it's to stay away from those.

What can be divulged is that sci-fi writer Alex Garland's directorial debut is an unnerving bit of unpleasantness, one that unfolds mysteriously and elegantly. Tension builds with perfectly contained performances by Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander, and an electronic score from Portishead's Geoff Barrow that feels like an ice-cold vise.

Further containment involves Garland's use of space. The box where his humans and machines interact is small -- everything happens inside that house, and beautifully so, as cinematographer Rob Hardy's camera invokes Kubrick and references the late Gordon Willis, with distance placed between lens and subject, compositions built inside door frames and shadows, executed through panes of glass -- and it all wants to break open.

Ex Machina touches on standard science fiction tropes of control, hubris and How It Can All Go Terribly Wrong, but it also dares to bother the genre's boy's club by asking questions about how women perform for men, how men foolishly try to alpha each other for just about anything they want, how easily deceived humans are when they're hungry for power or sex or safety, and what we'll do with ourselves when we finally go too far. It's ambitious sci-fi with an unhappy case of chronic anxiety and a pronounced pessimistic streak, sort of like an anti-TED Talk. It builds on the sort of negativity and worry that billionaire tech CEOs hate, the kind of bad energy that could effect the bottom line. And there's always room for a little more of that.

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