Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
UK Release Date: 23rd January 2015
The release of Ex Machina appears to have come at an eerily appropriate time, with recent concerns about the growth and future of artificial intelligence becoming a hotly-debated talking point in the scientific and technological community. Top minds including Stephen Hawking and SpaceX’s Elon Musk have warned of AI’s potential threat to the existence of humanity itself, and although Ex Machina doesn’t go quite as far as discussing apocalyptic scenarios, it does seek to explore the more philosophical questions of AI and it’s implications.
The film wastes no time in concisely establishing the set-up, introducing us to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at “Bluebook”, the world’s leading internet search engine. After being selected in a company-wide sweepstake, he wins the coveted opportunity of spending a week with the exceptionally enigmatic Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the corporation’s founder and head. Caleb is promptly flown to a remote compound in the rural highlands of Norway, where his reclusive boss lives and works. Nathan’s task for Caleb is to help test a prototype A.I. unit known as “Ava” (Alicia Vikander), an offer that is too alluring to pass up, despite his employer’s uncomfortably informal behaviour.
This project marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland, whose previous writing work displays an experience and affinity with science fiction and near-futuristic, dystopian settings (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd). With Ex Machina, Garland treads a well executed and careful line between compelling, plot-driving actions, and tech-based conversations regarding theories and concepts, a balance issue that tends to plague films addressing A.I. or similar sci-fi themes. His writing is as sharp and impressive as ever, particularly when we see Caleb and Nathan discussing Ava in-between test sessions, and though the film is slow moving, the pacing is efficiently gripping for the most part. However, as is becoming somewhat of a tradition for Garland, the slightly messy third act is where the tightness of the narrative begins to unravel, although not to any major extent.
The small cast of Ex Machina are all perfectly able in their respective roles, however Domhnall Gleeson is simply outshone by Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. Isaac’s unsettling and narcissistic Nathan is a captivating character, forever hiding his true intentions behind his duplicitous smile and overly friendly manner. While Isaac is brutish but understated enough to keep you guessing, Alicia Vikander’s performance as the android Ava is a full showcase of physical subtlety and facial nuance. Her movements are minutely robotic and her expressions are an encapsulating combination of a child-like desire to learn, and a distinct sense of synthesis.
The rest of Ava’s striking on-screen appearance is created from stunning visual effects by Double Negative, Christopher Nolan’s VFX studio of choice. Ava’s mesh body frame reveals her glowing internal circuitry, seamlessly whirring and blinking along with her physical movement, and Garland has wisely avoided exaggerated and distracting mechanical elements during important scenes or dialogue. Ava acts as the technological centrepiece of Ex Machina, although the tense and imposing atmosphere is completed by the film’s environment as well as its audio, with droning sounds and chaotic music increasing the sense of claustrophobia inside Nathan’s ultra-modern compound.
The questions of Ex Machina are nothing that hasn’t been asked before (can A.I. ever learn to truly love? What is true consciousness?). However, Garland has managed to retain a stylish originality in his approach, utilising powerful storytelling and impressive direction to produce a film that is beautifully sleek. Unlike the frightening scenarios that he writes so well, Alex Garland’s first directorial experience shows exciting promise for the future.
* * * *
4 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell