Under Slick Sci-Fi Surface, ‘Ex Machina’ Is First-Rate Old-School Suspense

In Movies & TV by April Snellingsleave a COMMENT

Things get creepy quickly in Ex Machina, one of the latest films to crack open the Pandora’s box of artificial intelligence. It’s neither the first nor the last movie of the season to deal with self-aware machines—we’ve already had Chappie, and now The Avengers: Age of Ultron is upon us—but writer/director Alex Garland’s claustrophobic, paranoid thriller is wired altogether differently than those flashier entries. Populated by only four actors for the bulk of its running time and playing out almost entirely in one location, Ex Machina is essentially a chamber piece that spends more time channeling Bergman than Spielberg. It’s an admirably tense and terrifically effective movie that hinges on deception, both as a plot device and in its execution.

The story centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of many young coders working for a tech giant called Bluebook—sort of an amalgamation of Google and Apple that serves, since it controls 94 percent of Internet searches and has no qualms about using the information it collects without consent, as a privatized Big Brother. When he wins a company-wide lottery, Caleb is whisked off to the enormous Alaskan estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), Bluebook’s brilliant and reclusive CEO. Caleb thinks he’s there for what amounts to a weeklong bromance, but after he signs an incredibly invasive nondisclosure agreement, he learns the truth: Nathan has constructed an AI and wants Caleb to help him perform a Turing test—an evaluation meant to determine whether a machine is actually thinking like a human or simply mimicking the humans around it.

From the beginning, there are hints that something sinister is afoot. Nathan is pompous and paranoid and has arranged a sort of Bluebeard’s castle setup; Caleb is prevented from communicating with the outside world—a security measure, Nathan says—and has a keycard that will get him into some rooms, but others are strictly off-limits. The house itself becomes a character, pleasantly minimalist at times but eerie and prison-like when occasional power-cuts throw it into a red-lit lockdown mode. Caleb finds it tough to think straight, so impressive and disconcerting are his surroundings. The only other person around is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a subservient, Japanese-speaking attendant who’s there to provide Nathan with a lot more than wine and sushi.

Things really get unsettling when Caleb meets Nathan’s creation. The movie is largely structured as a series of “sessions,” where Caleb interviews Ava (Alica Vikander), a remarkable construction of wire mesh, pulsing lights, synthetic flesh, and whirring motors. She wears her lovely human face like a mask and moves with a precision that’s both beautiful and a little off-putting. (Vikander is trained as a ballerina.) She immediately throws Caleb off his game. He wants to interact with her as a human on the forefront of a history-making scientific breakthrough, but he can’t help interacting with her as a lonely young man meeting a flirtatious young woman. Nathan observes these interactions on closed-circuit television, and we begin to wonder who’s really studying whom.

From that point on, it’s hard to discuss Ex Machina without giving away its surprises. It’s safe to say that, while it does touch on many of the questions that always show up in sci-fi stories about sentient machines, it’s actually more concerned with the decidedly analog ideas of the suspense genre: deception, manipulation, betrayal, and some good old-fashioned sex. As a smart-robot movie, you might guess the twists—the plot is actually pretty predictable at times—but the suspense and tension come from the layers Garland attaches to the sci-fi stings. It’s all about misdirection, a topic that’s discussed at length by Nathan and Caleb; while we’re busy being awed by the movie’s slick visuals and impressive FX, Garland is busy turning the screws with the noir-ish reversals and power struggles playing out in the compound.

Entire essays could be written about the sexual politics addressed in the film—Nathan is intelligent, charming, and filthy stinking rich, so why is he compelled to surround himself with programmable women?—but the editors only pay me for a page, so that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that Ex Machina is an intensely literate, cerebral movie that’s confident enough in its audience to drop Wittgenstein references without feeling the need to explain them. But, as Nathan tells Caleb early in the movie, it’s not about thoughts—it’s about feelings. And Ex Machina feels like a taut, finely calibrated thriller that gets under your skin in its first moments and stays there until its last.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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