There’s a tendency to overpraise smart sci-fi, in part because its comparative rarity makes each new example something worth treasuring. Most of them adhere to certain well-worn tropes (artificial intelligence, for example, or time travel) and the simple act of approaching their chosen topic with devotion and respect can be enough to carry them. Even if they don’t push the boundaries they seem to at first blush – even if they lean a little too heavily on their predecessors –they still deepen and enrich the genre simply by taking it seriously. “It isn’t always about spaceships and laser blasts,” they tell us. “Sometimes it’s about questions that have really fascinating answers.”
So it is that Ex Machina immediately enters the running for the best science fiction film of the year just by following through on the promise of its concept. It knows what it wants to tell us, and frankly we’ve heard it before. But it flashes some terrific little variations on the expected formula, along with shades of real darkness that assures you it’s playing for keeps. If we know what it’s going to say, at least we don’t have the slightest idea how it’s going to say it, and in that, it finds a quiet sort of brilliance.
At its crux stands Ava (Alicia Vikander), the world’s first functional artificial intelligence created by a maverick genius (Oscar Isaac) who has devoted the resources of his gigantic software company into her creation. He’s been laboring over her in complete solitude for months, but now he has to put her to the test: can she convince another person that she is more than just pre-arranged responses? So he ferries in one of his brighter employees (Domhnall Gleeson) for a week of thorough testing to see what happens.
Naturally, nothing goes the way anyone intended, and naturally Ava has more up her silicon sleeve than her male overseers suspect. Director Alex Garland cloaks her machinations, and the ensuing suspense, in the film’s bigger question: does having a soul mean that this construct is human? Or is it something entirely new, something that (naturally) we may not be able to control as well as we like?
The film can’t help but show its Frankenstein roots, but Garland spruces it up by linking it to 21st century geek culture. On one side stands the Internet mogul: pretending to be your buddy without letting you forget he can destroy you, and using his copious intelligence to ignore his even more copious flaws. His employee is all sweet romanticism and detached observation: the shy genius who no one ever noticed except as an object of bullying. Their traits give the story a cutting-edge feeling, and show us again how Mary Shelley’s monster remains as pertinent today as it was when she first wrote about him.
But the real kick – the part that leads Ex Machina delicately towards greatness – is that neither of these male geek icons stops to think about how Ava might have her own ideas. They both project what they want to onto her: creating in their minds a pleasing image of her rather trying to understand what she really is (and what she is might not match what either of them think). It launches a delicious little barb against the GamerGate crowd among other things, throwing a pro-feminist loop into what had been a garden-variety (if quite well executed) surpassed-by-our-creations story.
Add to that some exquisite technical details (creating suspense out of silence and tension around the unspoken) and a quiet bit of special effects wizardry (Ava displays a brilliant bit of concept design), and Ex Machina turns into the kind of film that science fiction fans pray for. If it ends up forgotten, that’s only because we’ve seen this path walked too many times before. And that would be a shame, for few films are able to walk it with the thoughtfulness and maturity that this one does.