The opening scenes of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina chopper us in to the story — literally. The exposition is implied rather than articulated; we don’t know who our protagonist (Domnhall Gleeson) is, what he does, or where he’s going. All we see (in a dialogue-free scene) is him at a computer, getting an email notification that he’s won “first prize,” and then he’s in a helicopter, headed for parts unknown. What he’s won, we gradually discover, is a week in the very private home of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire creator of a Google-like search engine. What he’s brought into is both an experiment and a mind game, with the figure of Nathan an evil iteration of an emerging pop culture archetype: the vile techbro.
Nathan’s success with the search engine “Blue Book” affords him an extravagant lifestyle: he owns a giant block of land, where a top-of-the-line security system protects his sleek and gorgeous home. But it’s not just a house; it’s his lab, where this 21st century Dr. Frankenstein has developed a sentient, artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
But he keeps that close to the vest initially. He won’t reveal the true purpose of the visit until Caleb (Gleeson) will sign a non-disclosure agreement, and he flips through a variety of techniques to get his reluctant guest to sign it, taunting and tempting him, insisting, “When you discover what you missed out on, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.” He uses peer pressure, in other words, and one of the subtlest yet sharpest details of Garland’s screenplay is how that unspoken tension is ever-present in their interactions. They’re both tech guys, yes, but there’s an unquestionable dynamic bubbling between them, the disparity between the geek and the cool kid.
Caleb lives alone, is socially awkward, doesn’t have a girlfriend. Nathan, on the other hand, is rich, handsome, in great shape, and totally confident — so much so that, when they first meet, he implores Caleb to let them interact as “just two guys, not the whole employer-employee thing.” He plays affable, peppering him with designer beers and referring to him as “dude.” But beneath that exterior lies a bristling impatience; he can barely tolerate someone who’s not as smart and successful as he is, and nearly all of his conversations with Caleb degenerate to an irritated snap (when Caleb explains that he’s quoting Oppenheimer, for example, Nathan interrupts, “Yeah, I know what it is, dude”).
In his speech patterns and surface behaviors, Nathan isn’t too far removed from the likable dorks who populate Silicon Valley (back on HBO this weekend); he’s T.J. Miller’s Erlich with a neater beard and better abs. But as a human being, he’s far more insidious than the affable awkwards of Judge and company; he plays mind and power games with Caleb, and, it seems, far worse with Ava. And without giving away the jangling turns of the picture’s brutally effective third act, Garland manages to subtly turn his Frankenstein story into an implicit indictment of the casual, entrenched objectification of women in that industry.
All of which is, I must note, the subtextual juice that gives the movie its heft; even if you’re not interested in close-reading or archetype analysis, it’s a crackling good entertainment, a brainy science fiction picture executed in a clean, concise style, with a narrative as logical as it is unpredictable. It’s freaky and scary and satisfying. But it also hints at the possibilities of a new, compelling breed of cinematic mad scientist.
Ex Machina is out Friday in limited release.