Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a movie for those who like their science fiction clever, stylish, and elegantly constructed. Revolving as it does around four characters (only three of whom speak) and confined to a single location, it resembles a well-made play tricked out with a few choice special effects. It stands as a sharper, more intelligent alternative to the loud, bloated sci-fi epics with which it shares space at the multiplex—the thinking person’s summer movie.
The entirety of the film (which runs a blessedly taut 108 minutes) takes place at the top-secret compound of a mysterious tech magnate known only as Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The compound is like Frankenstein’s laboratory as designed by Frank Gehry: it’s divided between glass-enclosed living quarters that overlook a breathtaking mountain view and a warren of subterranean chambers hidden from the light of day. When the film opens, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a whip-smart programmer at Nathan’s company, learns that he has been selected to spend a week behind the closed doors of Nathan’s estate. Within hours of Caleb’s arrival, Nathan unveils his latest invention: an artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s task is to spend the week testing Ava’s ability to interact convincingly with humans. As he finds himself developing an emotional—and sexual—attachment to Ava, Caleb is moved to try and save her from suffering the fate of a lab rat to be experimented on and eventually thrown away by Nathan. But while the two men vie for control of Ava, it turns out that she has plans of her own (to borrow a phrase from Double Indemnity, not an entirely inappropriate point of reference here).
Garland raises questions about sentience, identity, gender, and sexual desire that were all dealt with much more interestingly in last year’s Under the Skin, a film with which Ex Machina inevitably invites comparison. Ex Machina has its own charms, however, chief among them being Oscar Isaac’s scene-stealing performance. Isaac manages (somehow) to make Nathan variously self-aggrandizing, menacing, laughable, and—as he prowls the house in workout clothes designed to show off his toned body—improbably sexy. We’re also never quite sure just how smart Nathan is; in one scene Caleb appears to talk circles around him, and in the next he proves that he’s able to hold his own. With its labyrinth of locked rooms and closets filled with the “dead” bodies of female robots, as well as some prominently featured facial hair, Ex Machina can be seen as a variation on the Bluebeard story with Isaac in the title role. But Isaac’s Bluebeard isn’t merely scary: he’s scary and funny, and more than a little silly. He’s the most surprising and delightful discovery to be found in this film’s chamber of secrets.