Esteban Gonzalez’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Of course you were programmed, by nature or nurture or both and to be honest Caleb you're starting to annoy me now because this is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect.”
Many positive things have been said about Alex Garland’s directorial debut, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he has written several successful screenplays in the past. His three previous collaborations with Danny Boyle (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and The Beach) had to be heavily influential in his learning experience. In my opinion, writing a clever screenplay is one of the most important aspects of a film so Garland already had a halfway decent movie with his original sci-fi script. What did surprise me however, was the look of the film. The cinematography by Rob Hardy was gorgeous, showing the stark contrast of the beautiful location with the inclosed heavily secured home of powerful CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan is the owner of the world’s largest internet company, which is basically a search engine similar to Google. He has secretly built a robot with artificial intelligence, called Ava (Alicia Vikander), that he keeps hidden in his reclusive residence. In order to test its AI, Nathan decides to award one of his employers, a young coder named Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), the opportunity to spend an entire week at his private estate. Once Caleb arrives, Nathan introduces him to Ava and explains the experiment to him, which is basically a Turing Test in which he will have to decide if his creation actually has a conscious of its own.
After having been exposed to the large amount of land Nathan owns through an aerial shot taking place in a helicopter, the film takes place almost entirely in an enclosed space in his residence. This allows Garland to focus the screenplay on the relationships between the characters, setting the claustrophobic tone of the film (similar to what he did in Sunshine). The dialogue is gripping and sometimes heavily philosophical, but there are several undertones that the story is getting at here. It is what has made Ex Machina such a critical success because everyone takes something different out of it. It may be a slow building film, but the unnerving score composed by Geoff Barrow keeps you engaged with the story. Without entering into spoiler territory some of the underlying themes I took out of the film were that of the creator versus creation (with references to Frankenstein), masculinity trying to overpower femininity, and there were even a few attacks towards corporate espionage. Its hard to ignore a film like this that manages to subtlety explore some of these issues and speak to audiences in different ways.
The performances are as important as the screenplay here considering the action takes place in such an enclosed space, and Garland’s screenplay allows the cast to deliver solid performances. Oscar Isaac stands out as this reclusive CEO who you know can’t be trusted. There is always tension when he is on screen and there is something unsettling about him. Gleeson plays the role of Nathan extremely well and his scenes with both Isaac and Vikander are interesting. Vikander nails the role of this artificially intelligent robot with wonderful physical and voice work. These three characters interacting with each other are the highlight of the film and it all leads to some interesting twists and reveals along the way. I’m not the hugest fan of AI films, but this one kept me engaged thanks to the wonderful performances and solid dialogues. I do have to say that from the moment in which Ava puts on a dress to impress Caleb, I would’ve failed her in the Turing Test because there is no way a woman would so easily know what to wear without complaining she didn’t have anything to put on for that day. Alex Garland has delivered one of the smartest sci-fi films of the year, but it is more of a philosophical drama so if you are expecting an action film this isn’t for you.