Ex Machina is one seriously cool movie. The setting, a high tech mansion/laboratory hidden within in the forests of Norway? Awesome. Ava, the crafty android being tested in the lab, a photoreal hybrid of computer animation and actress Alicia Viklander? Amazing. The screenplay that deftly presents complex ideas in digestible dialogue, the score blurring the lines between organic and electronic, the amount of details that surprise even as the story arc appears clear? First time director Alex Garland makes it all seem effortless.
Though the story deals in familiar tropes going back to Frankenstein and Pinocchio, Ex Machina feels like a movie of the moment, in part by virtue of its coolness, in part by the way it deals with the age of “geek chic.” Nathan, Oscar Isaac’s buff hipster-bearded vodka-drinking disco-dancing programming genius who’s bought his way out of the eye of the surveillance state he profits from, is a character you wouldn’t see in a movie made even 10 years ago. Aside from the Harvard kids in The Social Network, I can’t think of any other cinematic study of this new archetype: the “brogrammer.”
Brilliant in ways once associated with the nerd, the brogrammer is the product of the male nerd’s successful assimilation into the mainstream culture, and all the problems that entails. At their worst, the brogrammer combines the nerd’s sense of superiority with the bro’s immaturity and chauvinism, the worst of both worlds. Nathan makes for a great antagonist because of his contradictions, how someone so world-changingly smart can also be such a narrow-minded douchebag.
If Nathan’s the antagonist, who’s the protagonist? Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson as a sort of nerdy everyman, is the film’s main audience perspective character. Yet it’s Ava, the mysterious machine Caleb’s putting through the Turing Test, who holds the most agency, far more than her creator has given her. Caleb may be testing Ava, but she’s testing him back, while Nathan has his own tests laid out. Given the sexual charge of the proceedings, this elaborate con game is also one of the creepiest love triangles (squares, if we include Nathan’s silent Japanese mistress) ever, where at least one party needs to get out for their own safety.
If I had any problem with the movie, it’s that one of the twists in the last couple minutes seemed a bit needlessly cruel. It’s not out of character, necessarily, I can think of ways it can be justified, but it raises a bit of confusion. It’s vague enough that it can either enhance or confuse the movie’s messages depending on how you read it. I imagine it’ll be divisive. But if you’re looking for smart original science fiction with a great sense of style, I can’t recommend Ex Machina highly enough.