***1/2 (out of five)
Alicia Vikander is a young Swedish actress who is going to be a very big star. I made that prediction a couple of weeks ago, reviewing Testament of Youth, in which she played an entirely believable young Englishwoman. Now, in Ex Machina, she plays an entirely believable American-accented robot.
This is trickier than it sounds, because legendary screenwriter Alex Garland’s debut feature as a director is not concerned with robots, but rather the AI that guides them – their brains. Vikander’s Ava, the most intriguing AI since Samantha in Her (2013) and the most intriguing robot for many a moon, may or may not be “perfect AI”, and it is Garland’s, and Vikander’s, job to keep us guessing just how perfect it – or she – is.
Our audience surrogate is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, who remains much leaner than his portly dad Brendan) who works as a coder at a tech company called Bluebook, which is obviously standing in for Google. At the top of the film, Caleb wins a competition to go hang out with the company’s reclusive founding CEO, Nathan, at his spectacular house in the wilderness (the exteriors were shot in Norway, but it is unspecified in the film where Nathan’s home is meant to be). Upon arrival, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) tells Caleb he wants him to apply the “Turing Test” to his creation, Ava. In other words, he wants Caleb to tell him if the AI is perfect.
What follows will feel very familiar for fans of the brilliant British television show Black Mirror – an exquisitely shot, small-scale piece of speculative sci-fi that is either set right now or moments away. It’s very stylish, often very creepy, and has just enough twists and turns to maintain its 108 minutes. Nathan’s house is the very best architecture porn, a spectacular modern affair built directly into the incredible Nordic landscape. Oscar Isaac occasionally over-eggs Nathan, twirling his metaphorical moustache just a bit, but he’s such a charismatic actor and the role is written intriguingly enough that he pulls it off. Domhnall Gleeson’s American accent seems to challenge him a bit but that annoyance dissipates and he does well with the least interesting role.
The most interesting role, of course, is Ava, and Vikander nails it. All we see of her natural body is her face, her hands and her feet – the rest of her is the inner workings of a robotic body, and Vikander and the visual effects team have together created something magical. It’s actually possible to say of this film that it’s worth seeing just for the robot.
Side note: between my review ofTestament of Youth and this Vikander has stepped even closer to mega-stardom. Earlier this week she was announced as the new “Face of Louis Vuitton.”