‘Ex Machina’ is thinking man’s science fiction

What It’s About

Artificial intelligence is the new frontier. And as we’ve learnned from previous science-fiction works, it usually doesn’t end well. But “Ex Machina” is out to prove its synthetic value and convince us to marvel at the wonder.

With a formidable trio of rising stars, the acting actually trumps the stunning technology, because one must feel something and not just look at the people behind the glass for this story to succeed.

Genius high-tech mogul Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) has arranged a contest at the Internet search-engine company he owns. Mild-mannered programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins, and is whisked away to Bateman’s ultra-modern private estate.

The secluded underground lair is where the reclusive inventor Bateman is experimenting with robots who can pass as humans. Caleb will take part in Turing Tests to evaluate the most advanced A.I., a beauty named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose emotional capabilities are astonishing — and deceptive.

The clever sci-fi film veers into thriller territory, with a cat-and-mouse game between Nathan and Caleb. “Ex Machina” is another cautionary tale about the limits and responsibility of technology. We’ve seen the future, and it just might not be us.


Isaac, steadily building a noteworthy career, is convincing as the megalomaniac Bateman with the God complex, scary and impressive at the same time. Isaac, noteworthy in “The Most Violent Year” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” excels at playing confident connivers. With a shaved head, bushy beard and pumped-up physique, he’s as physically imposing as he is mentally sinister.

Gleeson, a charmer in “About Time,” and sympathetic as a tortured prisoner in “Unbroken,” specializes in playing young nice guys, and wears his vulnerability on his sleeve here. Vikander, a Swedish actress who displayed strength behind the beauty in “A Royal Affair,” is both sharp and sweet here, slowly revealing her sly cunning nature.

What Works

Alex Garland, who wrote the electrifying thriller “28 Days Later,” one of the new Millennium’s best films, is at the helm of his screenplay for the first time, and he’s assured, if not methodical. He has set the template for the mad scientist stereotype for the new millennium.

There is an uneasy sense of foreboding that courses through the contemporary chic setting, keeping us off-guard — and interested. It’s best when the action simulates a pulpy spy movie, and Caleb feels like he’s behind enemy lines.

The glossy look of the film is striking, a eye-popping Disneyland of technology. The slick advanced hardware of the robots, the fascinating futuristic think tank, the eery security measures all contribute to the suspense.

What Doesn’t Work

While the tempo can be frustrating at times, the subject matter is not. It’s a thinking man’s sci-fi movie that has more depth than initially thought.

More character development and less shiny objects would have elevated a film whose art direction and special visual effects will be on the short list for year-end awards.

The vibe is cold and distant, with Gleeson the only one generating warmth. As his anxiety grows, so does ours,

Garland presents a standard sci-fi topic in a fresh and unusual way, and it’s worth delving into this world — with trepidation.