Directed by: Alex Garland Written by:Alex Garland Starring:Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
The blurb says: “Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, makes his directorial debut with the stylish and cerebral thriller, EX MACHINA. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated- and more deceptive- than the two men could have imagined.”
Alex Garland first came to the world’s attention with the publication of his debut novel, The Beach, a tale of natural paradise wrought to hell by the influence of man. He soon turned his hand to the more visual medium of film, writing the screenplay for the superb 28 Days Later, a tale of mankind being brought to its knees by our interference in the natural world. Ex Machina follows firmly in the footsteps on this path of ideas (following Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd), asking some complex questions about the very essence of human nature and the battle between nature and the constructed world.
Ex Machina is a beautifully crafted, intelligent science-fiction tale bringing to mind Blade Runner, Under the Skin or Her (but without the saccharine twee-ness of the latter). It is cleanly designed, stark and at times extremely shocking, but will leave a lasting emotional impression on you despite the austerity.
The cast are all fantastic. Alicia Vikander is just perfect in the role of Ava, her performance combining with Garland’s direction to draw you in as she does Caleb. Her subtle tilts of the head and inquisitive glances fall somewhere between Disney princess and assembly line robot, which is surely not an easy line to tread. Oscar Isaac brings balance to the character of Nathan Bateman (what is it with those Batemans?) who could easily have become a cartoon villain. Instead he paints him as someone who has been corrupted by money and power, having lost touch with what it is to be human. Domhnall Gleeson also shines as Caleb, who firmly fills the role of the viewer for much of the film, with us joining him as he makes new discoveries about Bateman and Ava. We begin to ask ourselves the same questions he does, which leads us to a surprising, and shocking ending.
Set largely in Bateman’s underground bunker the film feels intensely claustrophobic, with only occasional glimpses outside the strictly structured, dark world into the light and chaos of the woods and rivers beyond. Ava’s design has obviously been very carefully considered, a fact that is discussed as part of the plot, but was obviously foremost in the film-makers minds too. She is reminiscent of many screen robots that have come before her (Sonny from I, Robot, Bjork/Chris Cunningham’s ‘All is Full of Love‘ and even Maria from Metropolis), but through Vikander’s performance Ava feels utterly unique.
The carefully structured visual look of the film is heightened by Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and Ben Salisbury‘s terrific score, which is by turns menacing and delicate (the film also plays out with the brilliant ‘Husbands’ by Savages).
Despite the serious subject matter and big questions the film asks it also has it’s funny moments, with some genuine laughs coming in the first half of the film as Nathan and Caleb get to know one another. There is also a surprising scene in Nathan’s lounge towards the film’s conclusion, which could have thrown the film completely off-kilter, but instead cements aspects of Nathan’s character while giving the audience a few WTF-induced giggles.
The sexuality of the A.I. is an issue for the film, and one it doesn’t shy away from. Nathan and Caleb discuss the fact that Ava has been given a gender and capacity for sexuality, although it becomes clear there is more to this than Nathan admits. Women could be seen as being sidelined in the film, merely subjects of sexual desire to be used, manipulated and gazed upon, were it not for THAT ending.
Like Ava herself, Ex Machina looks beautiful but is far more complex than you first imagine. A fabulous directorial debut with stunning performances and a great soundtrack which leaves you asking big questions around what it means to be human, and what it means to love.
8 out of 10