The ascension of Oscar Isaac from a talented supporting actor to a beloved leading man able to have a foot in multiple mega-franchises while also acting in critically acclaimed projects (plus cultural thirst trip) was not a quick one. He spent years making small splashes in movies like the highly successful but quickly forgotten Russell Crowe Robin Hood and the bizarre Zack Snyder phantasmagoria Sucker Punch, until he finally got his very own starring vehicle in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. But while that black-and-white character piece put him on the map, it was the 2014 science fiction film Ex Machina that really showed what Oscar Isaac could do. Currently, the Alex Garland-directed film is streaming on HBO Max.
Ex Machina stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, the reclusive genius creator of the world’s most popular search engine. But the film actually begins with Domhnall Gleeson as the protagonist; he plays Caleb Smith, a low-ranking employee of Oscar Isaac’s company. In a remarkably assured, nearly dialogue-free sequence (this was Alex Garland’s directorial debut after writing several well-received films), Domhnall Gleeson is revealed to have won a contest to spend a week at Oscar Isaac’s isolated, technological marvel of a home. It is gradually revealed that Oscar Isaac is not just a businessman, but basically the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of the computer age. Then Domhnall Gleeson is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander, also in a star-making role), a humanoid robot kept in an isolated chamber beneath the house.
Over the course of Ex Machina, ideas of intelligence, artificiality, empathy, empathy, sexuality, and free will are examined. In many ways, the film resembles a play more than a typical science fiction film; there are no space battles, no alien invaders, not even an evil resurrected emperor. There are essentially only four characters: Oscar Isaac’s brilliant but brutish scientist, Domhnall Gleeson’s callow employee, Alicia Vikander’s imploring, eventually terrifying AI, and Sonoya Mizuno as a mysterious, silent house attendant. While the evidence of high technology is everywhere in the movie, Ex Machina is far more concerned with discussions between its characters than it is in showing off exactly how Ava has been constructed.
But Ex Machina is also an incredibly well-visualized movie, in both subtle and direct ways. Alicia Vikander’s Ava is a marvel of special effects, with a human woman’s face and hands and glowing circuitry nestled in her transparent limbs. Reportedly, no green screen or practical special effects were used during the filming; the robotic components of the body were added via rotoscoping and digital paint. But it is very much to the movie’s credit that it subtly contrasts the sleek perfection of Alicia Vikander’s high-tech form with the muscular form of Oscar Isaac, who spends the majority of the movie alternating between drunkenness and hangover-sweat workouts. Then, of course, there is the famous dance sequence between Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno, which still has a disquieting power no matter how many gif loops one has seen of it.
As the movie progresses, the tone of Ex Machina slowly changes. Where it begins with Domhnall Gleeson as the reluctant hero of the film (tasked by Oscar Isaac with performing a Turing test on Alicia Vikander, ie, determine whether she truly has artificial intelligence or is merely performing as though she does), the movie goes in very strange directions. What begins with two brilliant men discussing the fate of a piece of technology made to look female slowly morphs into a nightmare kind of Bluebeard story, in which Oscar Isaac plays the violent, powerful husband and Alicia Vikander the unwilling bride. By the end of the film, it is no longer even that, but saying more would risk spoiling the odd turns.
Prior to hooking up with Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina, Alex Garland was known as a Gen X novelist (and it shows) and wrote the well-regarded Danny Boyle science fiction film Sunshine and the cult classic Karl Urban-starring Dredd. Ex Machina marked the beginning of his career as a filmmaker in his own right, which he has followed with the equally beautiful and disturbing Annihilation and Men. Along with more high-minded fare like HBO’s Irma Vep and The Green Knight, Alicia Vikander would take up the Tomb Raider mantle for a little while, while Sonoya Mizuno would lead the Hulu series Devs and will appear in the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. And of course, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson would soon find themselves facing off against each other in a science fiction film, but one of a very different type.