April 15 2015 03:33 PM

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are seduced by A.I. in Alex Garland’s new sci-fi film

Domhnall Gleeson

The complicated relationship between humans and artificial intelligence has been of special interest to filmmakers as far back as the silent days. Directors like Fritz Lang and Robert Wise anticipated the bitter irony in mankind’s failed attempts to control the evolution of consciousness. Ever since, audiences have been treated to multiple variations on the dystopic aftermath, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ridley Scott’s one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner.

A similarly futile situation occurs between the characters (both living and sentient) in Alex Garland’s satisfying chamber piece, Ex Machina. This character-driven spin on the A.I. sub-genre intertwines voyeurism, gender inequality and manipulation within a strange love triangle. Special effects amplify the tension, not the other way around.

In a not-too-distant future, the world is connected primarily through Blue Book, a powerful search engine created by brilliant and reclusive computer programmer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). During the opening act, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented young programmer at Nathan’s company, gets a mysterious invitation to his employer’s private estate in the forest to participate in a weeklong experiment.

Upon arriving to the magnificent glass house built into the side of a mountain, Caleb learns that Nathan wants him to perform a Turing Test on his newest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robot partially covered in skin. The goal is simple: Can the machine exhibit behavior equivalent to and indistinguishable from that of a human being?

The scenario oozes with menace from the start. Nathan exhibits wildly erratic and contradictory behavior beyond his perpetual drunkenness, signaling multiple red flags about motivation and endgame. He’s a gregarious bro genius, like a cross between Bill Gates and Ashton Kutcher with a badass hipster beard. Isaac’s wolfish, unsettled guru empowers Caleb to dive headfirst into the interview sessions with Ava. The young man hopes to be a part of history so badly, he refuses to recognize the obvious traps along the way.

From here, Garland’s script starts playing mind games with the viewer. Caleb and Ava spend more time together, their mutual attraction growing while Nathan watches every move from a video monitor, voraciously watching like a mad scientist finally seeing his postmodern Frankenstein come alive. Except Ava’s mental complexity doesn’t gain power from electricity; it’s a fondness for Caleb that increases her capacity to think outside the confines of her subterranean box.

Ex Machina has a mad-hatter quality that threatens to subvert the standard genre trappings and posh setting. Caleb witnesses this firsthand when Nathan and his Japanese assistant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) suddenly start dancing to disco music during an intense transition point. The moment temporarily gives Ex Machina, which opens Friday, April 24, a gonzo feel, something the film desperately needs more of to offset the cold, overtly serious narrative.

Yet the crazy and hilariously abrupt musical sequence is an outlier of personality. Garland’s content to keep a clinical focus on his three main characters. Spoilers abound in the final act, but those paying attention to Ex Machina’s film-noir qualities won’t be altogether shocked by them.

Garland, known for his screenplay work on 28 Days Later, The Beach and Never Let Me Go, does solid work behind the camera. He’s got an eye for juxtaposing exhausted bodies against slick, modern spaces that suggests an apocalypse of self that’s constantly raging, especially in Isaac’s Nathan.

As one in a long line of films about human fallibility and A.I. superiority, Ex Machina distinguishes itself by contributing a convincingly feminist read on the power shift not just in terms of gender, but perspective. Garland’s subtle way of empowering Ava through strategy and experience rather than sensationalism feels fitting in a film about the power of seeing the world anew. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com.