It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Real science fiction is about ideas, which means that real science fiction is rarely seen on movie screens, a commercially minded canvas that's more at ease with sensation and spectacle. What you more often get from movies is something that could be called "science fiction-flavored product"—a work that has a few of the superficial trappings of the genre, such as futuristic production design and somewhat satirical or sociological observations about humanity, but that eventually abandons its pretense for fear of alienating or boring the audience and gives way to more conventional action or horror trappings, forgetting about whatever made it seem unusual to begin with.
"Ex Machina," the directorial debut by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "Sunshine"), is a rare and welcome exception to that norm. It starts out as an ominous thriller about a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) orbiting a charismatic Dr. Frankenstein-type (Oscar Isaac) and slowly learning that the scientist's zeal to create artificial intelligence has a troubling, even sickening personal agenda. But even as the revelations pile up and the screws tighten and you start to sense that terror and violence are inevitable, the movie never loses grip on what it's about; this is a rare commercial film in which every scene, sequence, composition and line deepens the screenplay's themes—which means that when the bloody ending arrives, it seems less predictable than inevitable and right, as in myths, legends and Bible stories.
The scientist, Isaac's Nathan, has brought the programmer Caleb (Gleason) to his remote home/laboratory in the forested mountains and assigned Caleb to interact with a prototype of a "female" robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she truly has self-awareness or it's just an incredible simulation. The story is emotionally and geographically intimate, at times suffocating, unfolding in and around Nathan's stronghold. This modernist bunker with swingin' bachelor trappings is sealed off from the outside world. Many of its rooms are off-limits to Caleb's restricted key card. The story is circumscribed with the same kind of precision. Caleb's conversations with Ava are presented as discrete narrative sections, titled like chapters in a book (though the claustrophobic setting will inevitably remind viewers of another classic of shut-in psychodrama, Stanley Kubrick's film of "The Shining"). These sections are interspersed with scenes between Caleb, Nathan, and Nathan's girlfriend (maybe concubine) Kyoko (Sonoya Mizono), a nearly mute, fragile-seeming woman who hovers near the two men in a ghostly fashion.
Because the film is full of surprises, most of them character-driven and logical in retrospect, I'll try to describe "Ex Machina" in general terms. Nathan is an almost satirically specific type: a brilliant man who created a revolutionary new programming code at 13 and went on to found a Google-like corporation, then funneled profits into his secret scheme to create a physically and psychologically credible synthetic person, specifically a woman. This is a classic nerd fantasy, and there is a sense in which "Ex Machina" might be described as "Stanley Kubrick's Weird Science." But despite having made a film in which two of the four main characters are women in subservient roles, and making it clear that Nathan's realism test will include a sexual component, the movie never seems to be exploiting the characters or their situations. The movie maintains a scientific detachment even as it brings us inside the minds and hearts of its people, starting with Caleb (an audience surrogate with real personality), then embracing Ava, then Nathan (who's as screwed-up as he is intimidating), then finally Kyoko, who is not the cipher she initially seems to be.