‘Ex Machina’ Review: Boys and Their Toys

Carl Franzen

Carl Franzen

In the film, a genius scientist asks a young programmer to help him test whether his fembot invention is really conscious.

It would be stupid to talk about Ex Machina, the new film from writer/director Alex Garland, without putting it in the context of the larger problem of sexism in tech. It's a science fiction thriller that centers on a sexy robot lady, after all.

That's not giving anything away—the trailers and marketing ​material all focus on Ava, the feminine android in question, played with suitable guile and elusiveness by Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actor known well in her home country, who may have her breakout stateside once Ex Machina premieres here April 10th.

The film is first and foremost a cunning sci-fi thriller, but it also smartly skewers our notions of damsels-in-distress and heroic mansplainers (like yours truly in the form of this review). In its best moments, it's almost a feminist critique of Silicon Valley, even if it falls short in a few minor areas, and the somewhat twisty ending isn't as impactful as it wants to be.

The setup is pretty straightforward: in the very near future or some alternate present, a young male programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, who coincidentally enough played a humanoid robot in Black Mirror) wins a contest held by his employer, a fictional dominant search engine company called Blue Book (Google is slyly alluded to but never mentioned outright).

Caleb's prize is getting to spend a week with Blue Book's prodigious but threatening creator Nathan (the masterful Oscar Isaac, lately seen in A Most Violent Year) at Nathan's remote and fittingly massive woodland estate. Nathan shows Caleb the latest and greatest invention he's been secretly working on, Ava the fembot, and asks him to help put her artificial intelligence to the test. The goal is to find out if she's truly conscious.

From these ingredients alone—two guys gla​mping it up out in the woods with an alluring female figure caught between them—we have a recipe for a high-tech love triangle, and we may even expect the kinds of masculinity contests and rivalries that befit a good rom-com. Boy meets robo-girl, boy meets robo-girl's maker. Hijinks ensue. That's not quite the direction the movie goes in, thankfully.

Instead, Ex Machina takes us on a much more cynical journey showing what happens when genius boys are left alone with their toys. The result is one of the most well-oiled cinematic thrill rides in recent memory, minus a few small bumps.

A big part of this has to do with the commitment of the main cast. Vikander, Gleeson, and Isaac are all entrancing in their roles, but it's Isaac who stuck with me the most. His portrayal of Blue Book founder Nathan as the menacing brogrammer supreme—a bearded, hulking brute of a man who seems to favor drinking alone and bulking up with his weights and punching bag at least as much as building robots—is nothing short of mesmerizing. His aura is perfectly predatory, eyes dancing with madness, his eerie chuckle tinged with barely contained anger. He's basically the guy who's done too much cocaine at a party and pinned some poor sober soul into the corner with endless, intense, one-on-one conversation.

Much of the film's action takes place in Nathan's county home-turned-research facility, an underground labyrinth of glass walls, polished surfaces, and an all-seeing security system. Aside from evoking the futuristic feel of modern tech offices and cutting-edge prisons, the transparent walls and networked surveillance cameras play on the film's themes of examination, boundary crossing, and exposure. All three leads are constantly trying to figure each other out, just as we in the audience are, but it's the two human men who err most severely in their assessments as the film plays out.

Garland's fixation with beauty doesn't end with the scenery or props. There's ample flesh shown throughout the film, most of it female, and the two male leads discuss the idea of robo-sexuality a few times in fairly blunt terms. Again, this is all deliberate and highly stylized, never gauche nor really pornographic. Yet it's hard not to feel like the movie is indulging in some of the very objectification behaviors it critiques.​

Almost all movies do this to some extent of course. By its very nature, the film industry is an appearance-driven business. Audiences seem to enjoy watching beautiful people do things on screen in various states of undress. But more often than not in Hollywood, it's been women doing the undressing. And in this case, it almost feels as if Ex Machina wants to have it both ways, showing us the folly of the male characters' arrogance, while at the same time, showing the world primarily from their viewpoints, not giving us very much in the way of female character development to dig into.

If there is one thing Ex Machina does well when it comes to addressing the innate gender divide of its premise, it's an entertaining deconstruction of two male archetypes especially relevant to our time. We have a nebbish, skinny nerd with a heart-of-gold embodied by Gleeson (underdog hero), and Isaac's mean techno jock (villain), and both have their character flaws ripped apart and laid bare over the course of the film.

The other thing that struck me a few minutes into Ex Machina is just how steady-handed Garland is behind the camera, especially considering it's his directorial debut (before this, he was the screenwriter of the modern horror masterpiece 28 Days Later and the not-quite-as masterful Sunshine).

Most impressive to me from a technical standpoint is the fact that Garland was able to capture so many beautiful and visceral shots of these reflective surfaces without accidentally getting a reflection of the camera itself in there, a much harder proposition than it sounds. Whatever you think of the story itself, Ex Machina is undeniably gorgeous to look at, and that helps keep the viewer's attention even in the scarce moments when nothing much is happening.

The only real criticism I have is that the narrative arcs of Vikander's Ava, and a few female supporting characters, don't rise up to that high bar. They simply aren't as interesting, probably because their characters aren't complex enough to begin with. That's obviously intentional in the case of Ava, since she's a robot, but it ultimately neuters the impact and transgressiveness of Ex Machina's ending. It also, unfortunately, accurately mirrors the conditions in Silicon Valley today. Let's hope that in the future when AI really is as advanced as Ava, Ex Machina will be looked at a relic of our times: the last stand of the brogrammers.

Ex Machina will be in theaters April 10th.