By Todd Perkins, Staff Movie Critic
When Ridley Scott made “Blade Runner” in 1982, things changed.
The idea that artificial intelligence created by man would ultimately overcome and manipulate humans was not new, but Scott managed to make a film so visually striking and astonishingly cerebral that the complex characters and ambiguous ending still challenges audiences today. Films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Prometheus”, and yes, “Artificial Intelligence” all deal with the subject of sentient machines, but it is up to each filmmaker to make something new with this concept.
First time director Alex Garland has written some of the most inventive and intriguing films of the past decade, with “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” being among his best. But his latest feature “Ex Machina” must stand up against the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Scott.
This tale focuses on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at a major search engine called Bluebook who wins a company competition to spend seven days at the remote island house along with his reclusive boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan reveals he has more in mind than a casual vacation retreat and friendly companionship when he reveals that he has been working on creating the first functional artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful female affectionately called Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Nathan begins a series of question and answer sessions with Ava in order to test how human the machine is capable of being, but he quickly begins to realize that his eccentric host has more up its sleeve than it initially lets on.
It is remarkable how much Garland accomplishes considering this is his first time acting as a director. Despite this being a close-knit character study consisting of three major characters, the reliance of computer generated imagery and production design is an integral aspect of this project that would seem daunting for any newcomer, but he manages to pull it all off. The movie focuses on attention to detail within the aesthetics and effects. The editing and pacing of the film seems to suggest the work of a seasoned filmmaker who knows how to set up story and tension with patience and subtlety.
Garland’s exceptional skills as a writer are evident in his past work, but his ability to shift audience sympathy and trust between these three characters is spectacular.
Gleeson plays all the right notes as a conventional man placed in an extreme situation, and his characters transition from willing participant to paranoid test subject is seamless, but it is Isaac and Vikander who truly shine. Isaac is fun, charming, and alarming all at once, and Vikander is given the task of humanizing a character that must look and act as a robot. These two actors deliver two of the most entertaining and frightening performances of the year thus far and manage to out their own spin to their parts despite being variations of the classic Frankenstein characters.
The story is old and even predictable, and yet the film is oddly alluring. This film works because it’s never concerned with surprising its audience with twists and turns, and confirms its viewer’s growing suspicions on which outcomes will eventually befall these characters. “Ex Machina” is simultaneously eerie and playful, smart and formulaic, surprising and predictable, and ultimately, a great movie that cinemagoers will enjoy despite its exploration of known territory. This is a film worth seeing.