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?

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Rated: R
Writer: Alex Garland
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-04-24

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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.