Ex Machina, the directorial debut of 28 Days Later and Sunshine writer Alex Garland, operates around a series of binaries. There’s the obvious man vs. machine, but also man vs. woman, the mind vs. the heart, nature vs. technology, the past vs. the future, reality vs. the imaginary. These aren’t exactly unusual themes for a story about artificial intelligence or for science fiction in general, but rather than ultimately picking a side as many are wont to do, this movie seeks to unify these seemingly incompatible concepts. Like the android at its center, Ex Machina is a synthesis of different, carefully selected parts fused to create an elegant, more-than-functional whole, and its sleek, familiar surface gradually peels back to reveal something much cooler and more slyly intelligent underneath.
Where many sci-fi films aim for the (sometimes literal) stars, looking to paint a dazzling, explosive picture on as large a canvas as possible, Ex Machina opts for a small-scale approach, featuring only four main characters and keeping nearly all of the action confined to isolated, clearly delineated spaces. As Oscar Isaac’s Nathan concedes early on, his house isn’t cozy; it’s claustrophobic, a modernist, technological prison surrounded by an almost overwhelmingly expansive natural oasis that whispers of freedom, the unknown and – most importantly to the two men who anchor this narrative – the uncontrollable. After all, the desire to control, the promise of power and supremacy is what draws Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson in a nicely restrained yet taut performance) to Nathan’s home, a decidedly artificial world that they seek to rule not just as men or kings, but as gods. Strikingly shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy and brought to life by production designer Mark Digby, art directors Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg, and set decorator Michelle Day, the house is an architect’s wet dream, as tastefully sophisticated as it is cold and hollow, seeming to exist in a limbo somewhere between the real world and a fantasy. The abundance of glass is hardly an accident; as Caleb slowly discovers over the course of the film, the control it offers is an illusion, one easily shattered despite the fancy security system that Nathan has installed.