Ex Machina

Ex Machina ★★★★½

This is how thinky sci-fi thrillers should always work. Really, if you're going to eschew space adventure-type stuff, you need engaging characters who can pull an audience into your "what if?" scenario, and you need to give them ample room to interact if you don't want your Big Themes delivered in jackhammers of blunt dialogue. Alex Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina succeeds not because it offers huge revelations, or even new ways to consider age-old quandaries, but because the small, excellent cast can patiently and thoroughly address the timeless notions at the core of any artificial intelligence sci-fi story. There sure are a lot of them, and Garland provides enough opportunities to ponder trust, free will, nature vs. nurture, what "humanity" entails, etc., without pretending he's solving any of the world's great dilemmas. Having ultramodern tech bros (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, who seem plucked from some non-comedy version of Silicon Valley) knock their heads against these notions is all the movie needs to contemporize what feels more like a '70s sort of approach. But it also has Alicia Vikander's Ava, extremely memorable as the screen's most mercurial robot lady since Sean Young in Blade Runner. Ava's design, like that of Isaac's tech god's compound/playground, combines sleek, anonymous technology with arresting organic elements, integrating the natural and man-made in a way that perfectly mirrors the story's themes (and, in the case of the house, evokes the leisurely sci-fi hippie favorite Silent Running). There are some images of partially-assembled robots here that I never would have anticipated making me so uncomfortable (thanks, uncanny valley!). On top of all this, Ex Machina works well as a tight, uncomplicated thriller. It's not hard to guess where it's heading, but thanks to the fine work of Isaac and especially Vikander, you're never completely sure.

Many reviews of this lauded flick seem to devolve into lists of existential questions it evoked in the reviewer. That's a natural reaction and a testament to Garland's thought-provoking prowess, but I got to Ex Machina relatively late, so I won't bother repeating what many have already pondered. This is simply one of the best new sci-fi movies I've seen in forever, edging out strong contenders like Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed and maybe even District 9. It's a little more highbrow than all of those, but it's not pretentious, and it never made my head hurt like Primer did. I look forward to basking in future viewings.

Scrambled liked these reviews