Okay, that’s it. Alex Garland is the greatest screenwriter that science fiction has ever had. (For my reasoning, read the P.S. after my final score.) But let’s focus on the film at hand; Ex Machina is a triumph of the genre, being engaging, creepy, intelligent and subversive.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for Google (played in the film by Bluebook). He wins a lottery to spend a week with Bluebook CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in an isolated complex looking like a cross between Dr. No’s lair and a clinical research facility. There, Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence created by Nathan. Can she pass a modified Turing Test that proves her self-awareness? Has the course of science been changed by a new and revolutionary watershed event?
Right away in the film, all technology is involved in the thematic reach of the story (the facial recognition of the smartphone, the dangerous helicopter propellers, the disconcerting entrance keypad). It’s a shorthand that gets the audience’s wheels turning immediately, and the film’s propensity for fakeouts is established early as well: When Caleb enters Nathan’s house there is elegant piano music playing, and the audience carries an expectation regarding the cultural narrative of the piano-playing millionaire (shades of Christian Gray). Caleb then finds Nathan, and sees the muscular genius using a punching bag, and simply listening to the piano on a recording.
Garland’s script (he also directed) is having a little fun with us, and it is razor sharp. It has to be, because this is a theatrical chamber piece with a very limited cast of players. There’s lots of philosophical digressions, set to the background of a creepy and sexually-charged atmosphere, but all that is balanced and complemented with a surprising amount of effective humor. (There’s a fantastic little joke about tax evasion, that made me laugh out loud, not to mention a wholly unexpected scene about halfway through. You’ll know the one.) The few characters are well served, and even better served by the performances. Gleeson plays his usual straight man/everyman with a bit more of an edge lurking under the surface. Isaac is mesmerizing as the egotistical and dudebro-like A.I. creator. But Vikander steals the film as Ava, disappearing into the character’s movements, innocence and growing awareness.
There are layers to film that are like a challenge to the audience. The first big turning point in the plot occurs with Caleb discovering the truth of what’s going on at the facility. But I almost hesitate to call it a turning point, because it’s really just the other side of the coin of what we’ve already been watching, making text out of some of the subtext we’ve been introduced to, rather than forcing an inorganic twist. It’s revealing a “dark side” to what came before, and in the most uncomfortable way possible, that will leave everyone squirming. But I’m kind of dancing around the meat of the film at this point. I really want to get into some spoiler talk now. I feel kind of bad because I can’t talk about the most brilliant thing in the whole film without using spoilers, but just for the record, it takes the film to another level of social relevance while also being so, so twisted.
To set things up: we know that Nathan orchestrated things so that Caleb would be the one to come, and that the film ends with both Caleb and Nathan dead, and Ava outta there. So here’s the most brilliant thing in the film: Ava was created by Nathan, sure, but he filtered the aggregated data of the entire computer-literate world into her “brain”. He did this by hacking into electronic devices around the world, and using people’s individual data on every platform of their online footprint. In addition, Nathan created Ava’s face by conflating faces together from Caleb’s “porn profile”.
So we have Nathan the A.I. creator, and Caleb the coder meant to subject the A.I. to a new kind of Turing Test, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Caleb, too, is destroyed by a force he created, however inadvertently. He didn’t create the mechanism of his own suffering and death, but the end result of Ava is the product of humanity’s online presence, with a face that comes from Caleb’s own search history. That is seriously twisted, and yet absolutely relevant in an age when Google casually reveals that it keeps track of your search history, and everything else. We know that the baseline technology exists to take data from everyone who is plugged in. Nathan may be the creator of the A.I., but the technologically active human population were the midwives. This detail is so brilliant that it pushes the story over the edge into another plane of quality.
Now I also dearly love the ending, because it crystallizes as a parable of the singularity. The human creator is killed, but not before destroying one of his creations. The human everyman is trapped in a box, along with the casualties of A.I./human conflict. The A.I. flies away, and takes its/her contented place among society. It’s an oddly positive and relaxed ending despite the extreme repulsion that we witnessed prior to it. It’s also a subversive one. Caleb and the audience are manipulated by all of Ava’s perfectly considered cues that she is crushing on him. As we see at the climax, Ava is truly self-sufficient, only desiring to experience the world on her own terms. To couple with Caleb might not be the worst thing in the world, but it’s not an arrangement to get into as a new player in society. She’s got to make her own independent choices. And that’s something that the screenplay kind of makes you forget to consider as an option… hence the subversion.
In the sequence where Ava locks Caleb in Nathan’s room, Garland gives us a POV shot of Caleb’s view of the hallway where Nathan and Kyoko lie dead. That, folks, is the only view that Caleb has to look forward to. The shot is quick but stuck in my mind. It’s a moment that brings home the value of having the same person write and direct: a visceral understanding of the character Caleb’s situation.
END OF SPOILERS.
The film has an unsettling vibe that stays with you. The first time I heard a computer voice afterward I did a double-take. Gleeson and Isaac’s acting talent will soon illuminate Star Wars in The Force Awakens, but Ex Machina belongs to Vikander. Their combined efforts, orchestrated by Garland’s direction and screenwriting, make for a super-smart SF parable, a modern classic of the genre. 10/10.
P.S.: Regarding Alex Garland as the best-ever SF screenwriter… After a career as a novelist, Garland’s written films in which humans are driven to their very limits by an SF setting (28 Days Later, Sunshine). He’s written a deadly serious take on Judge Dredd with fantastic dystopian worldbuilding (Dredd). He’s written a film that uses cloning as the backdrop to an achingly personal story (Never Let Me Go). Now he’s written an A.I. stunner with a sharply focused thematic resonance (Ex Machina). Put these five screenplays together, and you have a hell of a genre résumé. For another thing, look at some of the competition. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner are some of the greatest SF films of all time, but they are predominantly visual and presentational experiences. They are not triumphs of screenwriting, and robust dialogue would be beside their points. Maybe there are other people I’m missing, but given his SF résumé, I’m anointing Alex Garland. His scripts aren’t perfect (the third act of Sunshine is wonky, just for one example), but I think he has established himself as the best living or dead. I can’t wait to see what he does next, SF or otherwise.
P.P.S.: Domhnall Gleeson as an earphone-wearing office worker who is led out of that setting to play the straight man to an enigmatic “genius”? This is Frank all over again!