SXSW Review: “Ex-Machina" is a brilliant thriller that blends sci-fi and terror

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of A24 Films | Daily Texan Staff

“Ex-Machina” is a film that plays with the idea that there is a muddled difference between human and machine. Granted, there have been many films that tackle this subject, but the majority of those movies are more heavily invested in science-fiction.

“Ex-Machina” has sci-fi elements too, but it is much more a psychological thriller that forces three intelligent minds to face off against each other. The film is brilliantly tense, with chilling performances by all the lead characters.

Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to stay at a secluded facility owned by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a tech genius who’s determined to be the first to perfect artificial intelligence. Caleb’s job during his week-long excursion is to perform a Turing Test, a examination to help decide whether a machine has developed intelligence that is equal to that of a human, on a female android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ana is curious about Caleb and expresses a desire to see the outside world, but she warns Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted. Now, Caleb must decide whether he should side with the beautiful Ana or his mysterious boss.

The suspense in this film is simply chilling, thanks mostly to the setting. Nathan’s facility is a large compound, yet it feels intensely claustrophobic. Following Caleb through its labyrinth-like layout is terrifying. Another component of the thrilling nature of the place is Nathan himself. He seems to lurk around every corner, and he appears to be always observing his guests. With his vast CCTV network, it’s quite likely.

The beautiful visuals help convey the scientific achievements that Nathan has created. Little details, such as the keycard-accessed bedroom doors to the biometric mirrors, invoke a strange world that’s both amazing and unsettling. Ava’s robotic exo-skeleton is brilliantly designed and serves as a contrast to Ava’s human side and a reminder why Caleb cautions himself from growing attached to the cyborg.  

Gleeson is great as the eager, yet curious Caleb. He serves as a great outlet for the audience as they take in the technological wonders of the facility. Vikander is incredibly sympathetic as the wide-eyed Ava. She manages to make the character charming with her sense of wonder, but she also appears creepy becasue of her robotic elements.

The film’s breakthrough performance is Isaac’s fierce portrayal of Nathan. His character is nearly unreadable, so he can go from polite host to mad scientist in a heartbeat. His sense of achievement, playboy attitude and desire for perfection drive the story. He even provides the majority of the comedic relief. A moment when he drunkenly dances with his slave-like assistant is both disturbing and hilarious.

The tension itself cleverly builds throughout  of the film. Director and writer Alex Garland does a good job keeping the audience unsure about who’s the true villain of the film. He also does a great job highlighting a cautionary tale about technological process and how ego can be a dangerous motive for tinkering with nature.

“Ex Machina” conveys a creepy tale of three people (Ava, after all, is person-like) using their wits against one another to achieve both greatness and freedom. Garland’s first foray into directing presents a film that uses elaborate visuals, unstable characters and creative, technological fantasy to place the audience in a world of both wonder and terror.

Director: Alex Garland

Genre: Sci-fi/Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes

Rating: 9/10 Intoxicated Oscar Isaacs