It’s rare that a weighty, succinct, cerebral film slips through the cracks in the Information Age, but that’s exactly what happened to 2015’s underappreciated Ex Machina. Most filmmakers (and, let’s be honest, studios) would be happy to take home nearly $37 million at the box office on a $15 million budget and secure an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but those accolades don’t seem like quite enough recognition for the best film of 2015.
Ex Machina centers on computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who is selected by the CEO of the company he works for, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), to perform the Turing test on new, humanoid A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is taken to Nathan’s remote estate via helicopter, and serves as the everyman in contrast to the eccentric Nathan and his high-tech home.
The plot unfolds over the course of a few days, and although it does include peripheral humanoids and a few outsiders, the focus is on its three leads (featuring wonderfully subtle performances by the trio of stars) and the relationships they share. In particular, the interplay between Caleb and Nathan pushes the movie forward. The two differ on how they should treat Ava, and this serves as the biggest point of contention between them.
As with any movie about advancing A.I., Ex Machina covers the questions of personhood and sentience, but its themes of gender, wealth, and power will stick with you far longer. (Please forgive me, future Robot Overlords.)
Selecting Caleb as audience analog is a deliberate decision. Gleeson’s character is a generic, young, white man living and working in what we can safely assume is Silicon Valley. He’s unthreatening and normal, but that is a multifaceted choice. In a movie about the power dynamics of relationships, Caleb’s casting is more than what it appears at surface-level. Nathan and Ava’s relationship functions as God and servant, Nathan and Caleb as unchecked CEO and reluctant yes-man, and most crucially, Caleb and Ava as a man in a powerful position and a woman reliant on his judgment.
Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut. Garland, a former novelist who previously established himself in Hollywood as the writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, has since directed 2018’s divisive Annihilation, but it’s his work on Ex Machina that stands out from the pack.
Few films are able to maintain a singular focus without becoming trite or one-note, but Ex Machina’s tight story, small cast, and intense pacing see it to the finish line before it becomes another preachy sci-fi slog. Like a cat following a laser pointer, lesser filmmakers would attempt to find 10 other distractions to increase the film’s 108-minute runtime. Garland and his editor’s aversion to unnecessary side-plots and characters is a suitable match for Ex Machina’s clean, minimal interiors and beautiful, icy Norwegian exteriors.
Ex Machina is a modern classic that stands among sci-fi genre titans like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and The Matrix. The Academy snubbed this film, but you shouldn’t. If you’re a fan of film, heady fiction, or hard science fiction, you owe it to yourself to see this one.