If Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a film about our capacities and limitations of sight, then Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a film about our capacities and limitations of thought. It posits concerns of the brain, of intelligence and empathy, as if an accordion, expanding and contracting from character to character. It is a film that emphasizes its chamber setting as a mechanism of confinement, where its characters roam a secluded estate, exchanging manifestos of philosophical concerns that range from nature versus nurture and theology. One could even make the mistake of calling Ex Machina a smart film amid the reductive discourse that constitutes the bulk of its exposition. Yet it’s a disappointingly schematic film, plotted to such unnatural and rigid detail, that one would have hoped for something more fluid, more imprecise, and more human.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young coder working for a Google-esque search engine called Blue Book. Through happenstance, he’s selected to spend a week with the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), on his private mountain manor. Helicoptered, Caleb asks his pilot how much longer before they reach Nathan’s estate – the pilot glibly replies that they’ve been hovering over it for the past two hours. It’s a throwaway line, but an interesting one to consider given how the film correlates architecture and Earth to the expansion of the mind. In this case, we realize that space corresponds with Nathan’s expansive mind, though even that has its limits. As Caleb and Nathan meet, they’re initially defined by their physical dissimilarities – Caleb is tall and lanky, Nathan is wide and burly – but the two develop a rapport and share mutual affectations toward science, and most interestingly, women.
Caleb’s invitation comes with a nondisclosure agreement and a stipulation to perform a Turing test on a revolutionary and physically realized artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Garland frames the following interview sequences between Caleb and Ava with a title card prefacing their meeting, as Nathan observes from a monitor in a closed room. These interview segments involve a particular self-aware cadence, where the process of acting out a role and complying to a rigid set of behaviors while under surveillance feed into an anxiety that the film acutely develops. Given the claustrophobic setting – the interview scenes are shot in sterile rooms with a glass pane separating Ava and Caleb – there’s a clandestine but palpable dialect being spoken on the insular frames of minds of all the characters in the film.
It’s Ex Machina’s visual coup de grâce to see a convincing portrait of insularity of the mind reflected within the confines of the physical frame. Characters operate within their confined space, with thematic efforts made to stress the need to escape confinement – a Jackson Pollack painting housed within Nathan’s bedroom only reinforces this cognizant attempt to highlight thinking outside the box. Ex Machina also has the notable distinction of covertly modernizing character archetypes. Someone like Nathan, for example, is a cross between a Victor von Frankenstein mad scientist and a dudespeaking executive. The Jekyll and Hyde dynamic of the character makes Nathan perpetually off-kilter and is only reinforced by the combustible dimensions added by Oscar Isaac – from his gait to his bloated frame, Isaac is a critical force in maintaining the picture’s twitchy sensibilities.
Garland’s better at visualizing his insular concerns than he is writing them out, as Ex Machina quickly succumbs to over-plotted digressions. The miscues and misdirections toward its ending, in what’s meant to be a revelation of monumental social and gender significance, detract from the potency of its final imagery. If Garland imparts a lesson in Ex Machina it may be to strive for a greater sense of empathy among your fellow man (and AI), but it’s bogged down by a narrative that postures as dense. Eventually, one can’t help but submit to a wave of indifference when concepts like intelligence and empathy are relegated to being cogs in a plot twist.