Movies about newborn artificial intelligences and their creators have been resurgent lately. The concept has been around for decades, of course, but with the new rise of the Silicon Valley enterpreneurs and the cults of personality that have developed around figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, it's the perfect time for cautionary stories about new technology and the often accompanying hubris of their inventors.
The genius entrepreneur at the center of "Ex Machina" is Nathan Batemen (Oscar Isaac), the head of a Google-esque internet company. He has secluded himself at a remote estate in the wilderness that is only accessible by helicopter. One of his employees, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a mysterious contest where the prize is to spend a week with Nathan at his retreat. Caleb quickly discovers upon his arrival that he's really there to help Nathan run tests on the secret project he's been working on: an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
After years of movies like "I, Robot" and "The Machine," where this kind of story inevitable devolves into action sequences and large scale pyrotechnics, one of the nice things about "Ex Machina" is how small scale and intimate it is. There is some violence and plenty of special effects, but writer director Alex Garland has made a piece of science fiction where the relationships, moral dilemmas, and existential questions are put front and center. It's very close in spirit to "Her," though "Ex Machina" is a thriller at its core with much darker themes. "Her" and "Ex Machina" both involve a young man and a female-identifying A.I. getting to know each other and establishing a relationship. And both rely heavily on good performances, strong aesthetic choices, and careful worldbuilding.
Now Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are excellent here, but the lynchpin performance is Oscar Isaac's. Nathan is intelligent, charismatic, persuasive, and gracious toward Caleb, encouraging him to treat Nathan as a friend rather than an employer. He's also clearly a little off-kilter due to the isolation and lifestyle - think of a Tony Stark who has been taking to himself and his robots for too long. However, when Nathan talks about Ava and his work, the coldly rational scientist-playing-god emerges. Nathan is so personable and displays such sympathetic human flaws, it's easy to overlook his capacity for evil.
Then there's Vikander's Ava, who is one of the most compelling A.I. characters I've ever seen. A great deal of the plot involves a Turing test, where Caleb converses at length with Ava over the course of several sessions to determine to what degree she behaves the way a human would. Like Nathan, there's more going on inside Ava's head than there appears to be at first glance. Vikander plays on the audience's expectations - A.I., particularly female A.I., are often portrayed as childlike, naive, innocent, and victimized. Ava is all of these things, but only up to a point. Vikander is excellent at embodying this.
For a movie that revolves around conversations in a claustrophobic setting, it feels very dynamic. A lot of this has to do with the pacing and the actors, but I think the special effects work also deserves a lot of credit. For most of the film Ava appears as an unfinished gynoid with partially transparent, synthetic body parts except for her human face and hands. It's completely convincing and effective, and goes a long way toward there always being something interesting onscreen to look at. Nathan's decor is also nicely sinister and thematically relevant if you're paying attention.
There's also the dialogue, which presents some very interesting, lively debates between Caleb and Nathan, and then Caleb and Ava, about the nature of A.I. and the human experience. I like that Garland assumes a level of knowledge about A.I. and genre savvyness a few notches higher than the norm. All of these characters are smart, which allows the story to be smart, which means that the points that Alex Garland wants to make hit a lot harder than we usually see in similar movies.
And it doesn't hurt that it works just fine as a traditional thriller, with one heck of a finale. Just because it doesn't involve expensive CGI explosions doesn't mean "Ex Machina" doesn't deliver some heady thrills.