We all know the Frankenstein or Blade Runner template. When a brilliant, eccentric inventor has created an intelligent robot with an acute self-awareness and a somewhat unsettled emotionality, two things are certain to happen. One, the inventor is going to treat the robot callously and dismissively, mainly by failing to recognize its individuality (including the interesting possibility that the robot may have a semblance of a soul) as well as preventing the robot from venturing outside the inventor’s pre-determined scheme or realm. And two, sooner or later the robot is going to rebel against the inventor and probably kill him. Because the robot needs to break free and choose its own path but the inventor insists on being a dictator, etc.
So naturally your attitude when you sit down with Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina (A24, 4.10) is “okay, are we going to do the usual-usual or take things in another direction?” The answer is…okay, I won’t say. But it engages you despite what you suspect will probably happen. It’s a chilly but never dull behavioral thing — techy, beautifully designed, fascinating and definitely creepy at times. I was into every turn of the screw, start to finish.
Ex Machina comes alive and gets under your skin (or it did mine, at least) because of a certain tone of casual, no-big-deal eccentricity. It’s not what anyone would call a comforting film, but Garland (author of four respected futuristic screenplays and three novels, including “The Beach“) composes and delivers a certain low-key, spotless vibe that feels…well, ordered. There’s never a feeling of emotional chaos — everything happens with deliberacy. Call it a vibe of crisp efficiency with an underlying feeling of something malevolent around the corner.
Fitting right into this is Oscar Isaac‘s Nathan, a super-rich, laid-back genius nutbag with a beard and a shaved head who has a low-key, no-big-deal, “I already know this” attitude about everything. Everything happens in a cool, downplayed, matter-of-fact way, and Garland, to his immense and lasting credit, never overcranks the emotion.
The first interesting part is how emotionally engaging Alicia Vikander‘s robot — called Ava — is. Visually she’s never much more than a pretty face with a half-plastic, half-CG body with an airy mid-section, but she’s just as dimensional as Nathan and in some ways a bit more so. The truth? She’s sad, polite, patient, inquisitive and — odd but true — erotically enticing.
There’s a moment when Isaac asks Domnhall Gleeson‘s Caleb, an employee who’s won a competition to participate in an experiment at Isaac’s remote home-laboratory, what he feels about Ava, and Gleeson begins to share his thoughts. “No, no…how do you feel about her?” Isaac repeats. Caleb doesn’t say it but he’s half in love and would probably like to poke her if he could, although it’s never spelled out if she’s capable of mimicking intimate activity or has been built with imitation genitalia.
I don’t relate to Gleeson because of his ginger hair and freckly skin and dweeby manner and particularly because he always seems to be flaunting or proclaiming his sensitivity. I was therefore terrified that he would weigh this movie down with his fucking feelings, or more precisely that Garland had hired him to be the film’s default emotional guy with Osaac and Vikander off on their own peculiar orbits.
Whenever Gleeson is performing a scene in any film (and I’ve definitely gotten to know him since Anna Karenina) I’m always silently begging him to stop emoting and just be cool. “I don’t care how you and your character are feeling about what you’re going through, you cloyingly sensitive, pain-in-the-ass actor,” I whisper to him every time. “It’s my emotions that matter, and not yours. Just go through the paces and say your lines and handle things as best as you can and I’ll do the emotional stuff…okay? I really don’t like you and I imagine there are others who feel the same so just turn it down already.”
Filmed for about $15 million but looking and sounding a lot pricier, Ex Machina‘s digital and prosthetic effects are clean and deft and about as state-of-the-art as it gets in this, the year of Our Lord 2015. I’ve never wanted to “do” a robot before — that’s saying something.
Ex Machina is satisfyingly adult and appropriately technical — a sci-fi creeper that does the expected thing but in ways that add unexpected, somewhat atypical qualities. I came out of the screening room going “yeah…yeah…not bad. Actually better than not bad.”
The only problem for me is that the screening room was overly air-conditioned and I was half-freezing and wishing I’d brought a sweater along.