Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violences.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
“Ex Machina” is the best movie I’ve seen all year.
Granted, it’s April. At the beginning of the year — especially the months of January and February — it’s notoriously dumping-ground time. But “Ex Machina” is far and away superior to everything else that’s out there right now, and it’s expanding nationwide this weekend — hopefully to a theater near you — so now is your chance to catch it.
But here’s the trouble: I can’t really tell you much about it beyond urging you to go see it. It’s full of twists and turns that build slowly and suspensefully — they are supported and earned, not gratuitously shocking — and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them for you. Just trust me on this.
“Ex Machina” marks the directing debut of British writer Alex Garland, who wrote the Danny Boyle films “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” and — at age 26 — wrote the novel that was the basis of Boyle’s film “The Beach.” He is clearly fascinated by the complicated and sometimes cruel ways in which people interact. Here, he adds artificial intelligence to the equation in a claustrophobic situation, and the result is gripping. Garland’s film is beautiful and precise but also chilly and detached in a manner reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, with a similar taste for injecting quick bursts of intensity to startling effect.
The mesmerizing score (from Portishead co-founder Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury), the cool cinematography, the minimalist production design and meticulous visual effects all work exquisitely in concert to create an inescapable mood, a vivid sense of place. It’ll all stay with you and keep you thinking long after it’s over.
You’ll notice I haven’t gotten to the characters, or the premise, or the plot. This is tricky, but here goes.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a bright, young programmer for a Google-like behemoth called Blue Book. (Gleeson, son of the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, further reveals his likable, versatile presence as our Everyman conduit, and he does an impeccable American accent.) One day at work, Caleb learns he’s won a contest to spend a week at the remote compound of the company’s creator, the brilliant billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He has no idea what he’s going to do there, but it certainly sounds like an exciting opportunity.
Nathan’s home is a thing of wonder: a sleek and spare combination of concrete, glass and steel built into the side of a mountain and filled with modern furniture and art. Accessible only by helicopter, it features sprawling grounds and dazzling views as far as the eye can see. It is a lair worthy of a James Bond super villain, and I pretty much want to move there tomorrow.
When Caleb first meets Nathan, the boss is going through his rigorous, morning workout — part of a routine which will become significant as the film goes on. Bearded and burly, Nathan tries to buddy up to Caleb with copious droppings of “dude” and “bro” and non-stop beer and wine. But this persona seems slightly awkward on him, which makes him untrustworthy from the start. Speaking of versatile, the charismatic Isaac continues to prove he can do anything, and has been on a terrific roll the past couple of years between this, the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and last year’s powerful “A Most Violent Year.”
Nathan soon explains to Caleb what his purpose will be over the next week: He will take part in a Turing test, meaning he will help determine whether the A.I. being Nathan has built can convince him it’s human and believably think for itself. Or rather, herself: Her name is Ava, and in the hands of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, she’s an elegant and beguiling creature. Vikander trained for a long time as a ballerina and it shows in the fluidity of her movements, the delicacy of just the slightest tilt of the head. She also happens to be beautiful and gifted with a melodic, feminine voice.
From Day One, Caleb is hooked — and the days mark off segments in the film like chapters, each more ominous than the last. Man and machine feel each other out over a series of meetings, separated by glass. He is polite and inquisitive but also interested in challenging her; she is needy and eager to please in a way that’s almost childlike, but she’s also quick on her feet. And there is the small matter that Ava is a robot — and Nathan’s creation — so we realize that we probably shouldn’t trust her, either, even as Caleb’s feelings toward her get a little blurry.
And … that’s all I’ve got. Just trust me on this. You don’t want me ruin the suspense that Garland builds gradually through the use of expert pacing and evolving performances. This is just an extremely cool movie.
But, mercifully, Garland also finds ways to break up that tension in strange and darkly humorous ways — a disco dance routine that comes out of nowhere, for example, or an unexpected pop-culture reference. “Ex Machina” is the rare film that truly keeps you guessing, even when you think you know where it’s going. And it’s a welcome opportunity to think and feel deeply as we’re about to entire the summer season of mindless schlock.