Sometimes a straight-forward, low-key picture is the exactly correct approach when dealing with larger than life concepts. This can especially be true with sci-fi. I had a lot of fun with the twisty trashiness of this year’s Predestination, which was anything but tasteful, and the ludicrous world-building of last year’s The Zero Theorem, but neither of those examples haunted me quite as much as Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina. There’s something about Ex Machina’s straight-forward, no nonsense approach to sci-fi storytelling that struck a real chord in me. It’s not likely to win over folks who are looking to be surprised by every single development in its plot, but for those willing to enjoy the movie on its own stripped-down terms there’s a lot of intense visual rewards & interesting thematic explorations of, among other things, masculine romantic possessiveness that can be deeply satisfying. It’s a cold, tightly-controlled film that somehow echoes both the overwhelming psychedelic claustrophobia of Beyond the Black Rainbow & the you’re-in-over-your-head-kid misanthropy of last year’s brilliantly dark Frank without coming off as at all showy in the process. That’s no small feat.
Holding down the Frank end of that formula is incredibly talented Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (who also starred in Frank, go figure), playing a young computer programmer who is recruited by a villainous half-Steve Jobs/half-Howard Hughes bro-type (played by the also talented Oscar Isaac) to test the consciousness of a just-invented AI robot called Ava. Despite her artificial appearance, Ava is incredibly human and challenges both her creator’s & her observer’s views of who & what she is, calling into question whether her confinement & lack of freedom is a form of abuse. As more is slowly revealed about Isaac’s mad scientist & the depthless intelligence Ava is hiding, the movie takes on a deeply sinister, misanthropic tone in which no one comes across as a good person, but rather all three parties are complicit in attempting to control, mislead, and manipulate, all for their own selfish reasons. In the cold confines of the remote compound where this three-way power struggle unfolds, there’s a deeply unsettling revelation about the worst aspects of human nature at play here, one that is in no way lessened by being able to see where the story is going before it arrives there.
The truly impressive thing about Ex Machina’s calm, controlled style is how striking of a visual effect the movie accomplishes through very simple, straightforward techniques. Throughout the film, there are frequent “power-outs” in the setting’s remote facility that bathe the screen in a threateningly intense red light. When the camera cuts from these images to the contrasting bright greens of nature outside, the movie not only draws a visual comparison between nature & artifice, it also creates a surprisingly psychedelic experience that recalls the futuristic medical facility of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Just like with its acting, story-telling, thematic explorations, tone, and pacing, the visual aesthetic established in Ex Machina is surprisingly effective for something so intentionally simple. It’s an impressive picture in how it makes no grand gestures to impress, relying on its inherent strengths instead of showy gimmickry to establish itself as a unique work. I found the effect of this approach both eerie and refreshing, both disturbing and poignant. In other words, it’s a great film.