Desk jockey Caleb is alerted at his terminal that he's won a contest. He's got a Charlie-finding-the-golden-ticket smile and the other employees rush to high-five the hell out of him. In one cut, he goes from his office to a helicopter chopping over a vast, secluded landscape. The bird comes down in a field and Caleb is informed he'll have to walk the rest of the way. "Keep your head down and follow the river," the pilot tells him. Maybe it has something to do with the new Jurassic Park's imminence, but the set-up of Ex_Machina seems to imply that whatever's about to happen will be large, loud, and probably computer generated. It's not out of the question that our hero will be fleeing from giant humanoids by the 45 minute mark.
But the rest of Ex_Machina plays out through conversations in a contained, sterile, underground facility. And, for my money, the result is more compelling and gripping and troubling than an island's worth of loosed dinos.
Caleb has "won" the opportunity to put a new model of Artificial Intelligence through a "Turing Test" – that is, to determine whether a human will know it's interacting with a computer. The inventor is prodigy/mogul Nathan, eccentric and alcoholic, alone in his compound save for a servant that doesn't speak English. In Caleb he seems to be expecting a friend as much as a colleague. And, kept behind glass – like an experimental dino in a zoo maybe? – there's Ava, the AI that Caleb is meant to interrogate and either pass or fail. Caleb interviews Ava, Nathan interviews Caleb about that day's interview with Ava.
Ex_Machina is a tight three-hander, and proof that you don't need heaps of special effects to alter reality. Knocking back and forth between Nathan and Ava, Caleb becomes suspicious about the intentions of his facilitymates, dubious about the nature, meaning, and endgame of his task. The larger themes are the familiar stuff of sci-fi – man playing God, man playing Prometheus, etc. – but the smaller, more personal ideas and questions in the film make for a huge meal. Thankfully, writer and first-time director Alex Garland (heretofore at his best when teamed with Danny Boyle) plates and serves his feast in a refined way.
In keeping the action contained to a few rooms in the seemingly-vast compound and players down to just Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac (recently the titular Lewyn Davis in the Coen's film), and Alicia Vikander, Garland achieves an almost theatrical tidiness to a topic that might otherwise get huge and unruly. Though only anecdotally similar films, Ex_Machina is successful in the way Her was, suggesting a future culture and civilization instead of belaboring it, letting the human – or humanoid – element of the story take the wheel.