There is a serenity to Ex Machina, the kind that Stanley Kubrick used to instill unease in the viewer. Whether it's the pervasive silence, geometric production design, or steady gaze of the characters into one another's eyes, Ex Machina possesses a calming quality that is clearly manufactured yet undeniably effective. It beguiles you into a false sense of security that is disrupted in fits and starts, mostly by the magnetic genius who anchors the film, played by Oscar Isaac. It is in fact so drenched in Kubrickian atmosphere that one may be convinced of the film's utter profundity, when it simply does not exist, at least not quite on that level. Writer and first-time director Alex Garland (who brought us the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go) operates in a realm of big ideas about the nature of existence, but tends to fall short of the sort of philosophical transcendence his work initially seems to promise. That is not to say that Ex Machina is a bad movie, just that it's reach extends beyond its grasp. Unfulfilled ambition is to be celebrated more than fulfilled mediocrity, after all.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a twenty-something programmer for a huge Facebook/Google amalgam called BlueBook wins a contest in which he gets to spend a week at the remote home of the reclusive CEO and founder of the company, Nathan (Isaac). Upon arrival to the expansive, nature-bound house, he discovers that he has been selected to participate in a Turing test, in which he is tasked with evaluating whether Nathan's new android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is capable of sentient thought.
All three of these actors have interesting, intersecting careers, and they each give an outstanding performance in this film. Gleeson has quietly become ubiquitous, straddling the mainstream (Harry Potter, About Time, the new Star Wars film) and the independent (Frank, Never Let Me Go). Isaac continues his world dominance as a capital-A Actor, landing main roles in both Star Wars and as the eponymous big baddie in X-Men: Apocalypse, while also receiving Pacino comparisons for A Most Violent Year. He's an incredibly versatile actor, in part because of his unplaceable ethnicity (he's half-Guatemalan, half-Cuban) and also because he's just that talented. Here, he's the best part of the film as an intriguing mix of Sweatpants Bro and menacing mastermind.
Vikander is also surging in popularity in English-speaking films, despite her Swedish origins. Her stunning beauty alone can't account for that; she has some real chops, which she demonstrates in a performance so tightly controlled and modulated that you start to question yourself whether Vikander is not also an android herself. Whether she's slumming it in Seventh Son or lighting up the screen in Anna Karenina, she's proven that she is going places, and fast. In a bit of ironic casting, the warm and loving relationship she shared with Gleeson's Levin in Anna Karenina is cruelly inverted in Ex Machina in a way that I won't spoil.
I focus so much on the cast because this film is a chamber piece - aside from other minor characters, including what amounts to a silent handmaiden played by ballerina Sonoya Mizuno, there's no one else to watch. Garland's relentless stillness has a cinematic quality that only goes so far in telling the story, so there is an awful lot of pressure put on the actors to sell this material. They are the reason why the film succeeds, yet Garland is to be commended for posing as many interesting questions as he does without becoming ponderous.
In a world in which many people are acquainted with artificial intelligence on their phones, Ex Machina feels prescient, and not in a particularly good way. If what occurs in the film is indeed What's Next, then we all have a lot to worry about. It taps into the paranoia people feel towards the Internet, its ubiquity, and the fact that it seems to know everything about you (a helpful wrinkle of technology that Nathan exploits for his own purposes). As a cathartic exercise in wrestling with those fears, Ex Machina succeeds. Just don't expect a reinvention of the wheel when you get a compelling exploration of the current wheel.