When I heard that novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland was adding director to his resume, I was in. Garland is a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle – he wrote the screenplay for arguably two of Boyle’s best films in 28 Days Later and Sunshine and his novel The Beach was adapted into a film directed by Boyle. Ex Machina is a very assured debut work, and this is because he is working with his own ideas and he has learned how to express them cinematically having worked with great filmmakers like Boyle and Kenneth Lonergan (Never Let Me Go). Ex Machina is a twisty, engaging sci-fi thriller that ultimately falls short of the great genre works despite being a triple threat of inventive ideas, filmmaking craft and commendable performances.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) is a low-level coder at Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine. He is selected as the winner of a company lottery and invited to spend a week at the secluded mountain home/research facility of the company’s eccentric genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis). He has been brought along to play an important role in a Turing Test of a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander, A Royal Affair). Ava’s chemical brain, which advances independently like a human’s, has been built from the audiovisual data of billions of people who use Bluebook. Caleb interacts with Ava in a series of chaptered sessions, and if he feels that Ava’s replies cannot be distinguished from those of a human, the Turing Test is passed. But Nathan adds a twist by making it physiologically obvious that Ava is an android, adding further meaning to the test if Caleb can still relate to her human-ness. As Caleb develops a dangerous emotional attachment to Ava and begins to mistrust and question Nathan’s motivations and morals around his AI program, tension begins to mount between the three.
This is a film rich in ideas and Garland was able to find a means to exercise these ideas in a largely unhindered way, due to the contained setting and the minimal cast. This is a visually skilful film, and Garland ensured his focus was on developing mood, balancing his tones and exploring his themes through the relatively small filmmaking scale.
I am still trying to find a feel for the story – some of Nathan’s decision-making is very odd and there is a leery, sinister gaze at times – I feel like the intricacies of the relationships between the three characters requires another look to unpack, but I can’t fault the polished visual effects and the world Garland immerses us in. There is a sense of claustrophobia to Caleb’s stay, even though Nathan seems to grant him free reign. His key card opens some doors, but not others, and these doors are often hidden within the sleek surfaces of the hallways. We get the sense for most of this film that we are on board some sort of spacecraft. The musical score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Portishead) also adds a level of texture that works perfectly in sync with the mood and visual aesthetics.
Ex Machina is a cool film. It is calm and calculated and has some trippy, shocking moments. But, Garland also manages to add in some humour through Nathan’s unpredictable antics. Still, it is a thoughtful sci-fi that has prescient ideas about the future of technology and what is possible with the infinite data we have at our disposal. Humanity is well on the way to being consumed by the technology we ferociously consume, but what if we created a perfect artificial specimen, a flawless concoction of human consciousness and intelligence, that could pose a real threat. Nathan knows where the tests could lead, and though he understands the potential repercussions, he is excited to see what Ava is capable of. He is a loopy version of a Dr Frankenstein presiding drunkenly over his creations, manipulating them in questionable ways.
The acting is also sublime. All three key cast have been very busy of late, and Domhnall Gleeson is given a chance to really carry this film. Vikander’s flawless features are as important to Ex Machina as say Elena Anaya’s is to The Skin I Live In. She finds the right balance between inquisitive innocence and calculated deviousness. But, it is Oscar Isaac, who has been working with some excellent directors of late and delivered some genius performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, that is the most memorable. He has a lot of fun with this role and most of the film’s highlights involve him. I won’t spoil them here.
I’m still unsure whether Ex Machina is a complete success, but this is an interesting, thought-provoking addition to the AI canon and worth a look. Garland shows promise as a filmmaker.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: May 7