I'm quite the johnny-come-lately to reflect upon "Ex Machina", but then considering it's just been made available on disc (and was otherwise overshadowed by this summer's blockbusters), I suppose now is as fine a time as any to offer some words...
For those who might not know, "Ex Machina" is about a man and an android and the peculiar relationship that develops between them, under the scrutiny of a brilliant but suspicious scientist. The early set-up reminds one of the '80s "Twilight Zone" episode, "Her Pilgram Soul", though in that story, it was a hologram with whom the male lead conversed. In another way, "Ex Machina" carries a touch of "Iceman": the film where Timonty Hutton (a modern man) interacts with John Lone (a primitive man). The more obvious, broader comparisons would link "Ex Machina" to "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"/"Blade Runner"; "Creation of the Humanoids"; "Metropolis"; Rod Serling's "The Lonely"; the short-lived series "Mann & Machine"; plus various "Star Trek" episodes that deal with artificial intelligence and/or Mr. Data, in particular. (Oh, and I guess there are traces of "Alphaville", "2001" "Stepford Wives" and "Westworld" in there, if one really wants to stretch the matter.)
Okay, so what I’m saying is that the film isn’t conceptually original, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a serious peek, for it unfolds in a most curious way, implementing an element of John Fowles' "The Collector". However, theatrically, the dynamic is more complicated than what occurs between Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar in the book's cinematic counterpart. Though "Ex Machina", like "The Collector", spins into a tale of imprisonment and emphasizes an intense earning for freedom, its vibe becomes increasingly akin to "Frankenstein", for Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is its Victor and Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) its Henry Clerval, but Caleb is more than Henry, for Nathan pulls the young man further into his experiment than Victor would have ever dared.
Though the film's content grows increasingly complex, the story commences in a simple, oh-hum enough way. Computer programmer Caleb wins a contest (or so we’re led to believe), his award being the chance to indulge in Nathan's A.I. experimentation. Nathan has created a fabricated female, Ava (Alicia Vikander), who's partially “fleshed" about the head, hands and feet, but the rest of her consists of luminous circuitry within transparent casing. She's kept in a "glass" cell, and Caleb is meant to test her cognitive abilities through a series of talkative sessions, as Nathan watches via a monitor. Ava seems to fall for Caleb, and when she causes Nathan's expansive abode to lose power on occasion, it's only so she might remind Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted.
Nathan has a modernized Frankenstein lab, where he keeps his artificial parts. He shows Caleb a prototype of Eva's gel brain: a fluid-filled organ designed to hold memories and possible emotions. However, Nathan tells Caleb that Ava is an intended one in a series, designed for an inevitable upgrade. Her personality will be scrapped, which unnerves Caleb, to the point where he decides to orchestrate Ava's escape.
Writer/Director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”/”Dredd”) builds the suspense slowly, concentrating initially on Nathan/Caleb relationship, distinguishing a contrast between them. Nathan is arrogant; Caleb humble. Caleb finds himself stumbling deeper into the strange circumstances, and not only during his sessions with Ava. He witnesses Nathan's subtle cruelty, the way he treats his gorgeous housekeeper/dance mate, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who he claims doesn't speak a lick of English, which he prefers since he needn't fear her sharing information with some potential A.I. competitor. However, Kyoko holds a secret.
That secret links to other secrets, which Caleb begins to unravel. His revelation turns “Ex Machina” from a science-fiction tale into one of "Psycho"-piercing terror. It also squashes (SPOILER) any extended love story the film may have dangled. Good! “Ex Machina” could have been another cleverly disguised mush fest, but morphs into a mash-up of “Alien”; Lugosi/Karloff's “The Black Cat”; “The Skin I Live In”; and “Eyes Without a Face”. Its confinement of sleek, shadowy halls makes it alluring and yet claustrophobic. Like Ava, who wishes freedom, so does Caleb…and perhaps, on a subconscious way, so does Nathan (speculatively speaking, of course).
Despite its various misleads, the focus always returns to the evolving Ava. As to her intent…well, you’ll have to experience “Ex Machina” for yourself to understand. This one must be viewed with its air of mystery intact, and when finally the truth is revealed, you’ll be stunned and pleased, just as I was. Yes, folks, this is a good one…a damn good one, in fact.