The Year’s Best Science Fiction Movie Wasn’t ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a darkly funny and philosophical cyberpunk locked-room thriller that tangles with the greatest sci-fi puzzle: What does it mean to be human?

In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.

That last scenario is what Alex Garland digs into for his directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s a chilly investigation of the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence wrapped up in the skin of a sleek and increasingly horrific thriller. The fresh-faced, putative hero, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is just one more programmer working at Blue Book, a Google-like search-engine company. He wins this film’s version of the Golden Ticket: A week-long trip to the remote mountain hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Blue Book’s reclusive founder and CEO.

Once at the hideaway, Caleb is first feted and genially bullied by the savant-like Nathan in his luxuriantly minimalist estate in some chilly far Northern clime. Holed up in his GQ for Coders pad, Nathan has been trying to create an artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb’s help beta-testing it.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an android who falls right into that squeamish half-human region termed the Uncanny Valley. Her face and general outlines are that of a young woman. But Nathan has left her with a smoothly articulated metal skin and a clear midsection showing her robotic innards. That way, when Caleb sits down in front of her to ask his Turing Test questions – in which the questioner is normally supposed to determine whether an unseen entity is human or machine by how it answers a stock set of queries — her artificiality is plainly visible behind a see-through wall, as is her raw but swiftly evolving emotional intelligence. It’s as much a challenge as it is a test.

The questions proliferate quickly in this cooly-directed three-hander. Why was Caleb chosen? Was it necessary for Nathan to make his AI in the form of an uncommonly beautiful woman? Why does Nathan seem to be spending most of his days goofing off and drinking exotic microbrews? Is Ava’s keen curiosity about Caleb the programmed mimicry of a modern-day Mechanical Turk, her seeming intelligence all part of the test? Why did Nathan name his search engine for the philosopher Wittgenstein’s notebooks, is it just one stab at immortality by a guy who already thinks he’s transcended the rest of humanity?

There isn’t much in Garland’s resume that would suggest he has any especially insightful answer for these questions. Scripts like his outer-space horror-adventure Sunshine, zombie-apocalypse thriller 28 Days Later, and the future-noir shoot-em-up Dredd were slightly innovative and efficient suspense machines that braided a few surprise twists and post-millennial institutional cynicism into genre plots.

His screenplay for Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, was something else, though. The film itself was mournful and overly muted. But the underlying tangle of moral dilemmas that Garland skillfully imported from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel — when would a clone that looks, feels, and possibly even thinks like us be indistinguishable from us? — was sharp and cutting as broken glass.

Ex Machina takes a similar quandary, pairs it with Frankenstein-esque origin story, and packages it with a punchier, cyberpunk aesthetic. Garland keeps things simple for his first directorial go-round. He isolates his trio of characters in one location, swaddles them in stylish 0.1%-level luxuriousness, and seeds every scene with wonder, disquiet, and paranoia. The approach is seductive, enticing the viewer with the promise of sleek and beautiful new technology that promises to change all that we know.

We have already seen how the primarily male world of technological innovators likes to feminize the voices of the quasi-intelligent helper bots that populate everything from car directional systems to butler-like assistants on smartphones. Why wouldn’t a pampered genius like Nathan build his own model-beautiful AI with a nascent level of desire so she can stare adoringly at the inexperienced and increasingly confused young Caleb while Nathan watches, God-like? Who is going to stop him ?

Isaac’s vain, self-impressed Nathan is another of the dark-side nerds who started cropping up in popular culture once it became almost commonplace for the onetime wallflowers to become overnight millionaires and billionaires. From the weasely Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network to the sociopathic Julian Assange-like Andreas Wolf of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity and the social-network fascist lemmings of David Eggers’s novel The Circle, these Pied Pipers are forever preaching about the glorious freedoms that lay around the corner after just one or two more tweaks are made in the code.

In Ex Machina, Garland shows us one possible future that could come after another brilliant disruptor changes the technological paradigm and skips right past perfecting phones or code to something far greater. The battle over the rightness of that creation isn’t the kind of science fiction that’s going to bring in the masses like a lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren. But that’s the advantage that science fiction like Ex Machina has over space opera like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It actually matters who wins.

RATING 9 / 10