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The eerie, haunting Ex Machina is the robot love story you didn’t know you wanted

Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play two men in extreme seclusion, working to test the intelligence of a robot, in Ex Machina.
Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play two men in extreme seclusion, working to test the intelligence of a robot, in Ex Machina.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

We're living in a boom time for cinematic science fiction.



Whether you like your sci-fi stories epic or intimate, there's bound to be something at theaters to your liking. Movies like the Tom Cruise space-war action flick Edge of Tomorrow or the tiny, Oscar-winning romance Her (about the relationship between a man and an artificial intelligence) are coming up with bold new visions of the future seemingly every other week at the multiplex.

Similar to the boom in indie horror right now, the sci-fi genre is taking off because digital visual effects have finally gotten cheap enough that just about anybody can tell stories set in futures previously undreamt of.

That's why Ex Machina, the mind-bending new drama from novelist and screenwriter turned director Alex Garland, is so great. It's just a story of four characters in a secluded location, shot on an obviously small budget. But deep inside of it is a fully imagined idea of where humanity is headed — and what evils we're capable of.

If you're a huge fan of the genre, suffice it to say you will probably like this and should know as little as possible about it. If you still need convincing, read on.

A twisted love triangle — sort of

The center of Ex Machina is a love triangle — of sorts.

Because the film's central characters are two men and a woman, we're all but primed to watch as one of them slowly becomes consumed by jealousy when she seems to grow closer and closer to the other. And that's more or less what happens in Ex Machina — except romance barely enters into the equation. Instead, the film is a twisted look at the relationship between child and parent, creation and creator.

At the film's center is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence brought to life by tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan, who was the founder of a Google analogue named BlueBook, built Ava from trillions upon trillions of internet searches — the rawest possible data one could get for understanding how humans work, mentally and emotionally.

Into this situation steps Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a BlueBook employee who wins a lottery to go and stay with Nathan at his retreat in the middle of nowhere. (The film uses Norwegian exteriors to brilliant effect.) The reason for his secretive visit soon becomes clear — he is to test Ava, knowing full well that she's a robot, to see if he can somehow forget that fact and think of her as human.

And all the while, Nathan's live-in maid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), stands silently watching. She doesn't speak a word of English, says Nathan, but anyone who's ever seen a movie like this knows the secrets she's keeping will come spilling out sooner or later.

A slowly mounting terror

I called Ex Machina "mind-bending" above, but fans of science fiction will have seen much of this before. They'll know the rough beats of this story from dozens of others like it. They won't be surprised when, say, Ava intimates to Caleb that Nathan has sinister purposes for her in mind, or when Caleb starts to suspect nothing is as it seems.

What sets Ex Machina apart is that it's a movie where the characters themselves know what kind of movie they're in. A genius programmer like Caleb, for instance, would probably know a little bit about artificial intelligence, and Garland's script gives him the smarts and know-how that let the script skip past a lot of the exposition that might bog down other takes on this material. When Garland seems to be prepping a too-obvious twist, Caleb is way ahead of him, creating gratitude in the audience.

That intelligence adds to the film's slowly mounting twin senses of paranoia and terror. There's nowhere else to go while Caleb is at the house, and the security system keeps him locked out of many of the rooms except when Nathan deigns to grant him access. But since Nathan is so aware of what's going on around him, he quickly realizes just how stuck he is, particularly once he begins to care for Ava not just as a fellow intelligent being but as someone he might consider a friend or even lover.

Again, this is a story sci-fi fans will have heard before, but Caleb's intelligence allows Garland to keep twisting the knife more and more. Caleb knows he's doomed. On some level, he knows Ava is doomed. And he also has to know that with artificial intelligence on the way, humanity itself might be doomed. But that doesn't stop him from pushing forward. He's like an ant who's realized how little personal gain he gets from all that work, even as he lifts another grain of sand.

A series of two-person scenes

What's most remarkable about Ex Machina is how much it feels like a stage play — the vast majority of screen time consists of literate scenes between two characters who are constantly trying to determine the contours of their ever-shifting relationships. At times, it feels like the filmmakers cleaned out the old luxury hotel and put on a sci-fi movie.

Ex Machina, then, is about a constantly changing series of power plays. As you might have guessed, Ava is not as guileless or weak as she might seem, but neither are Caleb or Nathan. Garland is constantly playing with the positioning of his actors, suggesting the subtle ways one character gains the upper hand over another.

In particular, this is true of Ava and Caleb, whose "sessions" (at which Caleb tries to trick her into revealing the limits of her intelligence) form the core of the film. In every one of these scenes, Ava teases out a little more information that makes viewers think perhaps she's toying with Caleb, before he reveals just how surely he sees through her motivations. It's an endless game of cat and mouse, where the cat and mouse face each other and at least seem to be falling in love.

Yet the movie would be nothing without Isaac, whose bruised, lonely presence gives the film its heart. What Nathan is doing necessarily involves doing some terrible things (which I won't spoil), but it's also accompanied by endless, crushing solitude. Isaac, one of our most consistent actors, constantly forces the audience to feel the sheer weight of Nathan's work, the way the quiet woods seem to close in around him at times.

Elements of the film's ending might have been better off with slightly more foreshadowing, and Garland's script has never met a literary device it didn't like (particularly a handful of endless monologues). But at the core of Ex Machina are a set of very human themes, like loneliness and legacy, along with a big sci-fi idea: what would it mean to be a god who creates another god? And how would you ever live with yourself after that?

Ex Machina is slowly opening in more theaters throughout the country. Check showtimes here.

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