The Frankenstein template has endured as one of the most retread themes in literature and art since Mary Shelley first conjured her modern Prometheus in the early 19th century. A brilliant, troubled scientist creates an intelligent robot that becomes self-aware. The creator fails to acknowledge the individuality of its creation and yadda yadda yadda, the robot rebels and kills its master.
It's only natural that most viewers will go into Alex Garland's Ex Machina expecting this rehash, albeit glossed up and put in a slick new package. Despite following a great deal of well-worn territory, the film manages to engage its audience with its icy and efficient delivery and consistent undercurrent of malevolence. Garland (a respected screenwriter and novelist) gives his gorgeously designed film a muted tone that got way under my skin and rattled my guts even when I knew what to expect. And even when the plot feels familiar, Ex Machina's riffs on consciousness and sexuality are always intriguing.
A bald and bearded Oscar Isaac stars as Nathan Bateman, a reclusive billionaire genius who spends his days developing his artificial intelligence and his nights getting black-out drunk on Japanese beer. At age 13, Nathan created the code that would become Bluebook, the most popular search engine in the world. This wealth has not only allowed Nathan to live on a private estate the size of Delaware, it's also allowed him to play God. Or at least think he's playing God.
Isaac honestly gets better with each and every role. From Drive to Inside Llewyn Davis and his incredible turn in last year's A Most Violent Year, the dude is nuanced to a hypnotic degree. Here he's just so incredibly cool as Nathan Bateman. He downplays everything so well, and he never artificially amps up the emotion.
Bluebook employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) flies to Nathan's estate to perform the Turing Test (see: The Imitation Game) on Ava (Alicia Vikander), an A.I. who's no more than a pretty face with half a body. She may move like a wind-up doll, but Ava has just as much dimension as Nathan and Caleb (and in the case of the latter, maybe even more). She's enigmatic and highly inquisitive, oftentimes throwing questions right back at Caleb. In a lot of ways, she's a fantasy woman (minus a few working parts) who encompasses all of Caleb's and Nathan's sexual anxieties. It's interesting to note that Ava isn't Nathan's first try at creating an A.I. being, and all the previous ones he's made have also been female. Boy billionaires will be boy billionaires.
The weighty ideas Garland delivers in the film are presented almost exclusively through conversations between Nathan and Caleb. It's a much quieter, more organic method of getting your ideas across than we see in most Hollywood sci-fi fare. The atmosphere of unease and anxiety is extremely palpable, up until the film's closing minutes when some choices Garland makes splinter the richness of the story. Garland's screenplays (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, The Beach) are kind of infamous for their rocky final acts, and many will argue that Ex Machina is no different.
Aside from the climax, Ex Machina is a wickedly smart sci-fi tale that traverses familiar territory, but it has enough unique (and abnormal) qualities to satisfy adult audiences.