Ambitious "Ex Machina" A Worthy Overreach

Notorious for keeping viewers at an emotional arm’s length with his steely brand of sci-fi – “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” – writer Alex Garland flips the script with “Ex Machina,” his directorial debut. Not only is the film not distant, it deliberately deprives its audience of personal space in order to make some pretty confrontational, pointed commentary about technology and human sexuality and gender politics. The picture doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve – it wears all of its insides like a slimy, quivering coat, determined to ferret out feeling from all who come into contact with it.

It’s hard to say if it’s more inevitable or more disappointing that the film’s aim overreaches its grasp, but its shortcomings make it no less worth the trip. And “trip” is the only word for it.

Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) co-leads as Nathan, a reclusive, oddball CEO and inventor who’s made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. He recruits one of his employees, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, “Unbroken”), to a wooded retreat for a weekend-long test run of his creations. Think “Jurassic Park,” but with female robots and lots of nudity.

Not only does Nathan think he’s mastered artificial cognitive ability, but emotional intelligence and all of its pieces. Humor. Empathy. Sex. Ava (Alicia Vikander, “The Fifth Estate”), the female bot he untethers on Caleb – a humanoid with transparent, circuited scalp, neck, torso, arms, and legs – has been engineered for a man’s pleasure, a development Nathan glowingly communicates to his incredulous programmer.

The resulting narrative is largely formless, with Caleb and Ava bonding while Nathan spies on them with his elaborate security system.

Like the flipside to Spike Jonze’s A.I. rom-com “Her,” there’s something inherently sinister about Nathan and his compound. But it’s Caleb who’s the film’s lynchpin – and the reason why it doesn’t entirely work.

Through no fault of Gleeson, Caleb isn’t drawn very well. The character’s milquetoast presence makes for an interesting foil for Ava – she’s the most human of the two, arguably the three – but it’s hard to feel anything for him, even when Garland pulls back the curtain on some middling secrets in the picture’s third act. The screenplay makes no real attempt to get to know its lead, likely a deliberate technique that backfires in a major way.

Caleb is far removed from being a classic protagonist, but he’s not exactly an antagonist, either. The film’s brilliant, stark photography and competing drug trip story beats deserve a more compelling principal, something that Ava can’t do simply because she doesn’t get enough screen time. Ultimately, this is her story, making Garland’s focus on Caleb all the more frustrating.

Yet the film’s ideas are inherently striking and Garland brings them to a wonderful boiling point, culminating in a realization of the title’s double meaning.

Some viewers will be hard-pressed to describe what “Ex Machina” is, and that’s exactly the point. It’s equally scathing and obtuse in its indictment of male chauvinism, and occasionally painful in its restraint. There is virtually no action, no laughs – only a delirious dance sequence to remind us of Nathan’s weird, closed-off world – and a sparse score.

But the film is a natural progression for Garland and a welcome sign of a filmmaker who wants to challenge himself just as much as he wants to challenge his audience. “Ex Machina” might feel withholding as it goes down, but should leave most with a full feeling, anxious to dissect what they’ve just seen – the ultimate mark of good sci-fi.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: April 10, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
MPAA Rating: R (for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence)