Oscar Isaac deserved to be nominated for an Academy Award this year. And no, I’m not talking about his work on the excellent new Star Wars movie as Poe Dameron. I’m talking about his excellent acting in April’s “Ex Machina,” a riveting sci-fi film that takes inspiration from the best the genre has to offer.
“Ex Machina” tells the story of Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson), a programmer who gets invited on a week-long visit to the secluded estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire CEO of the software company Caleb works for. Upon Caleb’s arrival, Nathan tasks him with giving a Turing test to the CEO’s latest breakthrough: a hyper-intelligent and incredibly complex robot named Eva (Alicia Vikander).
As Caleb explores the extent of Eva’s ability to replicate human behavior, he also learns more of her mysterious and reclusive creator. Isaac’s Nathan is equal parts charming and intimidating, just as determined as he is reckless. Behind his thin-framed dad glasses and thick, black beard is a complex man who represents the worst of what Silicon Valley has to offer.
By day, Nathan is a relentless figure who pushes Caleb to probe his creation’s and his own humanity. By night, he throws caution to the wind, abusively drinking and slowly letting Caleb in on the secrets behind Eva. And then he wakes up, works out and starts the process all over again.
He’s totally believable on every level — the embodiment of the swaggering, narcissistic tech billionaire. Sarcastic, quick witted, charismatic and unbelievably egotistical, Isaac’s Nathan captures and satirizes the titans who rule over Silicon Valley.
Plus, he can dance. In the middle of this menacing and moody film, we get something unexpected: the now-famous choreographed dance sequence. In this scene, Nathan and his assistant Kyoko break it down to the grooves of “Get Down Saturday Night” set to some far-out disco lighting. Isaac seamlessly transitions from dangerous drunk to disco master to relieve the tension that had been escalating since the opening credits and manages to unnerve Caleb in the process.
Like the dance scene, all interactions between Caleb and Nathan are engaging and intriguing. Over the course of the film, Nathan’s narcissistic disregard toward and belittling of Caleb slowly becomes more apparent and ultimately becomes his downfall.
In the amazing, final, Frakenstein-esque sequence after Caleb helps free Eva, Isaac’s Nathan is murdered by his monster. Tellingly, Nathan’s reaction isn't one of anger but amazement. He’s proud of Eva’s cunning and her capacity for manipulation; more importantly, he’s proud of himself for creating her. Even in his dying breaths, Nathan is still only concerned with his own achievement and intellect.
Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the tech billionaire was more subtle and nuanced than the other roles that make up the list of Best Supporting Actors this year, but he absolutely nails the little traits that make this character great. His alternately restrained and bold acting forces viewers to question the titans of Silicon Valley who have elevated humanity to supposedly godlike status. He’s sharp, subtle and scary, and his performance was certainly among the best that this year had to offer.