Ex Machina

Directed By: Alex Garland

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac

There are many themes that have come to define the science fiction genre over the years.  Space travel, time travel, and aliens are just a few that pervade the genre.  One particular theme has stood out prominently in the last several decades, namely the battle of man versus machine.  It's mankind against the artificially intelligent beings we've created.  With films like The Terminator and The Matrix having carved their places in pop culture history, it's safe to say that this battle more often than not is depicted on a grand scale.  Well, things are about to change with the British sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a 26 year-old programmer for a major software company, and he's the lucky winner of a company-wide contest.  The young techie's prize is a one-week trip with company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his estate.  After taking a helicopter to the area, Caleb finally meets Nathan and gets royal treatment at the tech billionaire's remote estate.  Once Caleb signs a non-disclosure agreement, the two get down to business and the real reason why Caleb is here.  Nathan introduces the young programmer to Ava (Alicia Vikander), his latest creation and a foray into developing artificial intelligence. Caleb is here to get on the ground floor of this monumental achievement.

As with any groundbreaking advance, Nathan expects that there will be plenty of naysayers and detractors who will question the authenticity of his work.  To head them off, he's brought in Caleb.  Because he won the company contest, he gets to perform a Turing test on Ava to assess whether she is genuinely a self-aware being.  A pretty astute individual cognizant of the potential challenges and pitfalls of any such assessment, Caleb raises his concerns early with Nathan and likens it to evaluating a chess computer.  Despite his rather robust framework, there's still one factor Caleb doesn't anticipate in his sessions with Ava, her sexuality.  This quickly complicates their interactions.  Meanwhile, Nathan's remote estate suffers from frequent power cuts.

Ex Machina is undoubtedly an homage to those sci-fi films of the past that showcase this clash of man and self-aware machines.  Unlike other films that bake this theme into expansive worlds with lots of colorful characters, Ex Machina boasts a far more intimate film with a handful of key players and evolution as a sub-theme.  This allows for an intriguing, innovative premise that manages to incorporate an unmistakable sexuality as well.  Full of tense suspense, nuggets of gut-wrenching humor, and some impressive performances from its talented cast, Alex Garland's Ex Machina has certainly carved an interesting place at the box office.

As we look at the artificial intelligence that Nathan showcases in Ex Machina, there's one thing that's abundantly clear.  All his artificial beings are female, and I don't believe that's an accident.  This key decision is emblematic of two realities of which Garland may be trying to remind us.  With Nathan as the father of these robotic ladies who initially controls every aspect of their lives, there are certainly references to traditionally male-dominated societies.  At the same time, these superior, evolved forms of "life" are represented by women and only women, which must speak to how powerful and cunning females can truly be.  All in all, Ex Machina really makes a rather unique case for girls running the world.

Garland's cast is firing on all cylinders.  First and foremost, we have Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb.  Playing on his earnest charms, Gleeson offers what is easily the most emotional character in the film.  It's his moral compass that propels the film forward but also his gullible nature that fuels most of the comedy.  For her part as Ava, Alicia Vikander knocks it out of the park.  She manages to give us both a sensual being and a cold, calculating robot.  Juggling the two both physically and emotionally on screen is a tough act, and I must commend her.  There's a veil of mystery about her with regard to what her true agenda is.  Finally, we have Oscar Isaac as Nathan.  Fresh from A Most Violent Year and prepping for big roles in Star Wars, Episode VII - The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse, Isaac's star is certainly shining brighter than ever.  Still, I'd swear he's Al Pacino 2.0.  In his performance as Nathan, there's a dark swagger and gleeful delivery of his lines that's certainly reminiscent of Pacino.  He offers one engaging, manipulating character that doesn't disappoint.

Ex Machina is a sci-fi thriller that blends comedy, suspense, paranoia, and an unmistakable sensuality to create one gripping cinematic experience.  Director Alex Garland and his cast and crew do not miss a beat.  Taking a classic theme of the genre in yet another direction, this sci-fi thriller isn't one to miss.  Ex Machina gets a sober rating.