Alex Garland’s first movie as a director is Ex Machina, but he has been around the film business a long time. After his novel The Beach was adapted to the screen by Danny Boyle in 2000, the British writer collaborated more closely with Boyle on 28 Days Later… and Sunshine. His science-fiction film bears many similarities to Boyle’s work, and while it may not be as deep as he wants, it’s something to look at.
The film takes place almost entirely in the palatial, secluded mansion belonging to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator and CEO of the world’s biggest search engine. After calling one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to spend the week at his place, Nathan makes Caleb sign a nondisclosure agreement and reveals the reason why he’s there. That is Nathan’s latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot with an artificial intelligence that Caleb is there to apply a Turing test to — the characters explain what that is for the benefit of everyone who hasn’t seen The Imitation Game. Caleb is blown away by this quantum leap in AI, but in a rare moment when Nathan’s security cameras are switched off, she warns Caleb that her creator can’t be trusted.
Despite the flashy effects here, the small cast and secluded setting places heavy emphasis on the acting. Gleeson has done good work in other films (About Time), but here he’s stuck in a mostly reactive role, so his co-stars wind up stealing the spotlight. Isaac makes a compelling tragicomic figure out of the tech titan, a man who is equal parts visionary, sociopath, and dudebro — he follows up a veiled threat with a cheesy, left-field reference to Ghostbusters. This part could easily become too clownish, especially when Nathan does a choreographed dance routine with his mute Japanese assistant (Sonoya Mizuno) to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night,” but Isaac’s intelligence, calmness, and determination to keep people around him off-balance make this character dangerous. As creepy as the dance routine is, it’s still not as creepy as Nathan’s casual admission that he designed Ava with a working vagina.
No less impressive is Vikander, the petite Swedish actress who previously starred in the Danish historical epic A Royal Affair. A trained ballerina, she moves with the stiffness and overprecision that you’d expect, though I’m more in awe of the way she delivers her English lines in an uninflected way (as opposed to the American accents of her co-stars). She oscillates between cool remove and warm friendliness, and you understand why both the men who have interacted with her are wondering whether she’s sincere or whether she’s playing them.
The most eye-catching thing here is Ava’s look, with realistically rendered human face, hands, and feet framed by a wire-mesh body and visible cables and machine parts in her arms, legs, neck, and midsection. Combined with Vikander’s performance, this makes Ava into an uncanny and unsettling presence. Garland also gets good mileage out of Nathan’s house, with its minimalist furniture and bare rock walls, and also the spectacular nature settings. (If you’re wondering where to find the waterfalls and glaciers in this movie, you’ll have to go to Norway, where the film was shot.)
Garland tries to get into the specifics of why we want to create artificial intelligence, what that says about us as a species, and what would our creations be if we ever succeeded. Still, nothing that happens in the second half is really all that surprising, and the revelation about the Japanese assistant (who speaks no English but still seems to comprehend more about her situation than she’s letting on) isn’t anywhere as shocking as Garland would like. As a result, this movie doesn’t cut as deep as Spike Jonze’s Her. This movie also touches on how femininity gets constructed and how men in power try to control it, but Under the Skin is more powerful on that subject.
Then again, as long we’re making comparisons, this movie is a hell of a lot better than last year’s Transcendence. Garland the writer may be a bit too fiddly about the details of what we’re seeing, but his visual flair is undeniable. He also shows an ability to handle his actors. It all makes Ex Machina into a tantalizing debut and an arresting piece of science fiction.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac. Written and directed by Alex Garland. Rated R. Opens Friday in Dallas, April 24 in Tarrant County.[/box_info]