Ex Machina is up there with the very best cinematic science fiction. This category excludes sci-fi films that are more fantastical in nature, such as Star Wars or Avatar. Think more of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, where aesthetics and semiotics boggle the mind and keep audiences watching long after the first viewing. It pleases me beyond belief that Ex Machina seems the first serious sci-fi film to tackle issues of gender. What is initially a (very strong) movie about the possibilities, both beneficial and problematic, of creating artificial intelligence beautifully transitions into a symbolic treatise on the role of the female in the modern world.
The movie has three central characters, and, with a few exceptions, is set in one distinct location: the underground home-cum-research facility of a scientific genius named Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac in one of his best performances yet. Nathan lives in isolated seclusion in his scenic mountain retreat, whiling away his days with the singular focus of creating something never been seen before: an artificially intelligent being indistinguishable from any other human.
Caleb, tasked with testing the AI being, is introduced as the audience’s surrogate, and he is played by the ever-talented Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson’s performance shows a shy yet bold everyman whose curiosity always gets the better of him. We are meant to latch on to his character from the outset of the film, but Garland is idea-driven enough that he more than turns this trope on its head by the film’s end.
This tested individual comprised of wires and gel is her own unique person, and the true lead of the film. Her name is Ava, and the performance that Swedish actress Alicia Vikander gives is excellent. While seemingly robotic in her movements, she ultimately shows more humanity and personable pathos than even the real humans in this film do. Ava is a living, breathing creation, ironic as that statement may be.Garland, as usual, writes an excellent script, filled with great dialogue and character moments. He writes a perfectly paced and structured story that isn’t epic or grand in its physical ambitions (and it absolutely doesn’t need to be) but is certainly so in its philosophical and moral quandaries.
Symbolically, the whole concept and character of Ava is a discussion and analysis of the role of women in the modern world. It is that simple, but no less fascinating. While Garland’s script contains many well-written and insightful discussions between Nathan and Caleb about pretty much everything that you are thinking or asking yourself while watching the movie, whether it be sexuality, morality, ethics, art, and individuality, we become increasingly aware that there is not a single, identifiable woman in the film. Why then does a man choose to make his creation a female gender in appearance and characteristics? While it is never outright answered in the conversations within the film, the character of Ava stands as a highly functioning symbol by which all of these questions can be asked and discussed long after the film has ended.
The fact that Garland was able to create an independent, scaled-back, and contained film that functions as a thematically alive character drama is truly a tremendous accomplishment. We need more science fiction films that are this bold, driven, and smart.
As it stands, Ex Machina is possibly the best film I have seen so far this year, and one of the best science fiction films released this decade. It certainly satisfied my longings for a singularly intelligent work of sci-fi at the movie theater. The three superb performances at its center, coupled with the immaculate cinematography, set design, score, and densely packed script, all coalesce into a wonderfully fresh and bold work of art. It is a tightly structured and well-researched movie that grapples with the current (and future) issues surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence head on.
I greatly anticipate whatever filmmaker Alex Garland has up his sleeve as well, as he has now proven that he is just as talented a director as he is a writer, and has firmly found the place where he belongs: making distinct, high-minded films that audiences certainly will not forget for quite some time.