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Within the film world, a year is a very long time. There are roughly 52 weekends that feature multiple wide-released movies and countless limited releases. There are still hundreds of films left to be seen in the next eight and a half months, but I’m confident that by the time December 31st rolls around, Ex Machina will still be considered one of the best movies of the year, potentially topping my end-of-year list.
The directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine screenwriter Alex Garland, the story begins as a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected as the winner of a lottery at his company, and his reward is that he gets to fly out and visit the extremely exclusive research facility belonging to his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an eccentric, billionaire genius. It is only once our protagonist arrives at the remote location, however, that he discovers the reason behind his summoning: Nathan has created the world’s first ever artificial intelligence – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander) – and he wants Caleb to perform a Turing Test that will determine the full extent of the A.I.’s capability.
Over the course of a week, Caleb sits down with his subject through multiple sessions, asking questions to determine thought process, emotions, intelligence, and more before reporting back to Nathan. But it is here where Ex Machina’s real brilliance is revealed: the film is both about and is a test. Over the course of the narrative, it becomes clear that there are some very important truths that are being kept hidden, and through this fact, Garland sets up a brilliant mystery that is utterly captivating at every turn. A fascinating dynamic is established between Caleb, Nathan and Ava, forcing the audience to untangle what may or may not be a web of deceit and dishonestly, and ultimately question what is real and what is just misdirection. It’s a mind-fuck of the highest order – sold by three perfect performances – and it’s an utter thrill to get lost in the puzzle.
Alex Garland has shown us time and time again that he is one of the most gifted sci-fi screenwriters working today, but Ex Machina also displays that the filmmaker has an exciting eye as a visual artist, as the movie is as beautiful as it is captivating. Inside the walls of the highly secure research facility, the director does a stunning job matching theme to aesthetic, making constant use of mirrors - both representing Ava’s existence as a reflection of humanity, and the distortion of realty that can be found at odd angles. There’s also a wonderful application of CGI – primarily in Ava’s design – as its more subtle usage both lends a beauty to the advanced technology, while also maintaining a sense of grounded reality – which is only driven home further when we see Caleb and Nathan travel outside the facility into the breathtakingly gorgeous wilderness that surrounds the remote location.
Even on a broader level, Ex Machina deserves accolade for committing to a realistic, hard sci-fi concept and selling the drama within it. Complicated, though not confusing, the film never talks down to its audience; handling abstract ideas and complex concepts, but never forcing it into expository dialogue or unnatural moments where it feels like things are being explained. Of course, none of this is truly a surprise given Garland’s extensive and fantastic work in the genre, but the movie does help one understand why his stories work as well as they do.
Ex Machina is the kind of film that causes you, as the credits roll, to sit back in your chair, breath a bit more shallow, and whisper “Wowwowwowwow,” into the darkness. I can say this, because it was the exact reaction it caused me to have. We will be very lucky if we get another movie either as good or better this year. It’s truly a remarkable piece of mesmerizing science-fiction, and one that should be buzzed about for months to come.