“If you’ve created a conscience machine. It’s not the history of man – That’s the history of gods.” Caleb Smith
“I am God.” Nathan Bateman
These two lines from the two male characters in this film tell you everything you need to know about how they will end up. Caleb Smith is the nerdy computer programmer in awe of his employer and science. Nathan Bateman is the genius CEO / scientist who holds himself in high regard. Perhaps too high.
Ex Machina is a chilling film that would have fit nicely coming out in 1974 perhaps directed by John Frankenheimer. It’s a simple story told with little fanfair, extravagant effects or sets yet it feels otherworldly.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is chosen to spend a week in the company of his boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to work on an unknown project. He is brought by helicopter to Nathan’s mountain hideaway which is seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. He is dropped off and then makes a short trek along a pleasant creek and ends up at an unadorned compound. A camera outside the door takes his picture and seconds later a pass card with his face pops out of the wall. He uses it to enter and after wandering through the compound finds Nathan Bateman working over a heavy bag.
Nathan explains the project. He’s created an android with artificial intelligence. He wants Caleb to administer a Turing Test (a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human) on his creation. Caleb is excited and honored that he has been chosen for this historic undertaking. Nathan lets him know he wants him to feel comfortable, relax, not feel like boss and employee but two friends hanging out. But it’s clear that Nathan knows he is clearly superior in every way to his newfound colleague.
We meet Eva (Alicia Vikander) when Caleb does. She has a beautiful, youthful face. Just a face. A face seemingly grafted onto a synthetic skull. The rest of her body is part mesh and part exposed machinery. Caleb seems confident in the beginning, of his superiority to this ‘machine’ but with each session with Eva he becomes more seduced and beguiled by this creature who seems so ‘real’. Eventually, she has him doubting Nathan and fearing that harm will come to her without Caleb’s help.
Meanwhile, Nathan’s drunken behavior lessens Caleb’s opinion of him as well as Nathan’s treatment of his mute Japanese maid, Kyoko. He starts to sympathize with Eva and begins plotting how to save ‘her’ from Nathan’s clutches. This leads to the well executed finale which shouldn’t come as a surprise but still does and is riveting to watch.
First time director, Alex Garland, also wrote the screenplay. He previously wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007) as well as Sunshine (2007). His directorial debut is solid and not showy. I look forward to seeing if he keeps in this vein or starts to do bigger and bigger sci-fi films. That would be a mistake. The performances are all excellent especially Oscar Isaac who is quietly building a strong catalog of fine performances. He will be in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year. Let’s see if that will lead him to start getting the bigger but not always better Hollywood films or if he keeps his hand in these more intimate character studies.