Indie "it" boy Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a shy programmer at a Google-like corporation called Bluebook who has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with Bluebook's mysterious founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) in Nathan's ultra-remote mountain hideaway.
Right off the bat, Ex Machina asks the audience to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief. How and why, exactly, does the billionaire CEO of a powerful tech firm – picture a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs – manage to hang out in the middle of nowhere, essentially alone, without engaging with his busy company? If writer/director Garland, who shows no aversion to exposition, had spent just a minute suggesting that Nathan was semi-retired or that this was an annual retreat for him, I'd have been able to buy into the proceedings a little more easily. Instead, I had to give up on logic and settle in to the real story that Garland wants to tell.
Said story? Nathan has, all by himself, constructed an elegant android named Ava (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and infused her with artificial intelligence. He wants Caleb to give her the "Turing Test" – that is, to see if Ava's AI is so convincing that she could pass for human. Plot twists and hidden agendas await.
Ex Machina has some interesting ideas about control and desire, but the implausible setup and Gleeson's maddeningly dull character (after this and Frank, I'm dying to see him inhabit a less drippy persona) both get in the way. I kept wishing that Caleb would be wittier and more aware; he's apparently a talented programmer, and Nathan is clearly supposed to be a genius, yet Garland has a tin ear for how tech guys interact. Nathan, in fact, dismisses any and all technical jargon right away, which isn't authentic to his character and seems designed only to make the dialogue easier for us – and for Garland – to process.
Ex Machina should have been the story of two brilliant men constantly trying to one-up each other, with the beautiful android a pawn in their game – a pawn with her own plans. The results would have been more challenging and unpredictable. Instead we get an oblivious sap being taken for a ride by a manipulative bully, and only Ava, whose true purpose is revealed in the third act, is as smart as she appears. There's a feminist message here, but Garland doesn't quite nail it down.
The film has a sleek look, some memorable moments, and Isaac and especially Vikander deliver rich performances. I really shouldn't overlook the actress's work; she's fascinating. But Garland himself is in over his head. Ex Machina is high on potential but disappoints in the execution.