Alex Garland’s directorial debut is that rare sci-fi treat: stark, intelligent, uncompromising and unpredictable to the end. The film’s dialogue is shared between only three actors in one location, and just as Duncan Jones’ jaw-dropping debut Moon blew our minds (and influenced subsequent releases…Oblivion!), Ex Machina too throws away the rule book, and proves that less is more.
The opening sees Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a 26-year old programmer working for the world’s biggest tech firm (basically Google), win a competition to spend a week with the company’s mysterious CEO at his vast private compound to participate in a breakthrough experiment. It’s a very fast setup, and within about 3 minutes of the film’s start, Caleb is retrieving his keycard at the door to the secluded steel compound – Garland cuts right to the chase, and gets down to business.
The bare interior, all stone walls and metal surfaces, is the home/ hideaway/ laboratory of Nathan, played by 'man of the hour' Oscar Isaac, a pumped, brooding, stack of a man, completely at odds with Caleb’s tussled, boyish, slender appearance. The pair sit at opposite ends of the male spectrum, yet both share the same love of programming and computer science, prompting Nathan to dispel any awe or wonderment on first meeting with Caleb, in order that they can proceed with the experiment uninhibited: Caleb is to meet Ava, Nathan’s amazingly lifelike A.I. creation (Alicia Vikander) and participate in the Turing Test - a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The film is then broken down into chapters of each day’s activities around the experiment. As the film unfolds, more questions are raised (and answered), and no-one appears to be quite who, or what, they seem.
Ex Machina is fraught with tension, and never misses a beat when it comes to old lessons in building suspense – Hitchcock would have no doubt enjoyed this director's machinations. Garland manages to convey the sense that a lot is going on, when in actual fact, very little action takes place. Instead, he works on the assumption that the viewer will be challenging and scrutinising a lot of the information presented on screen, which makes for simultaneously demanding and rewarding viewing. He also manages to address the key issues surrounding the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, and the motivations behind mankind for dabbling within this field – many of which coincide with the controversy around cloning (although I worry that to raise them here will give away too much of the plot and its reveals).
Quite surprisingly, the Turing Test itself, and the interactions between Ava and Caleb only occupy half of the running time, as it is the discourse between Caleb and Nathan which proves just as important, often simmering with unease and discomfort; a game of chess between two great minds which evolves into power play. Gleeson is good, as is Vikander, but it is Isaac who really owns the show, delivering a powerful performance completely at odds with his other recent sterling efforts – Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year – again proving his versatility as an actor. No wonder he’s on for big action franchises Star Wars and X-Men.
Ex Machina has a cold and steely touch, a frostbitten kiss which slowly thaws hours after viewing, with a harrowing and unexpected ending which really packs a punch. Obviously not a stranger to Hollywood after his work on 28 Days Later, The Beach, Dredd, Never Let Me Go (etc), and clearly an intelligent director with razor-sharp precision, Alex Garland’s cerebral vision easily ranks alongside Duncan Jones’ Moon, Rian Johnson’s Looper and Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 as another true sci-fi auteur in the making. [5/5]