Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alica Vikander.
For the first time in his career Alex Garland takes center stage, promoting himself from novelist and scriptwriter to director, for the stylish, sleek, cerebral science fiction thriller Ex Machina. The film draws from some very old ideas, but Garland breathes fresh new life into this story, giving the classic sci-fi theme of man-plays-god an ingenious and modern spin.
Our protagonist, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is a geeky coder who works for software giant Bluebook, a search engine that provides for 95% of all online searches worldwide. After winning an in-house competition, he receives a ‘golden ticket’ for a weeks stay with the company’s reclusive CEO in his private Alaskan estate. Intelligent, arrogant and sardonic, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) can be considered as the most modern variation of the Dr. Frankenstein persona, a solitary scientist attempting to manipulate nature. He introduces Caleb to his latest project: a state-of-the-art robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), fixed with a gentle human face that is the perfect depiction of feminine beauty, a frame, human in shape, with enough mechanics exposed to remind us that she is made out of wires and metal. Caleb is invited to participate in the ultimate stage of Ava’s testing, by undergoing ‘the Turing Test’, an experiment that determines whether a machine has the ability to exhibit intelligence comparable to, or indistinguishable from, a human. After slight hesitancy, he accepts.
What follows is a series of ‘sessions’ between the enthusiastic Caleb and the inquisitive cyborg, the first being very much centered on their fascination and curiosity towards each other, all the while being monitored by Nathan in a separate room. After the initial excitement expires, the conversations between the two becomes truly mesmeric, especially when it becomes apparent that Ava is very much conscious of what she is, the magnitude of her mental capacity, and the influence she has over Caleb. As these sessions progress, the challenging sci-fi is slowly traded for horror as the walls of Nathan’s confinement-style home gradually begin to cave in around Caleb. It becomes evident that there is more going on in this solitary facility than meets the eye. From this point onwards we are delivered a smart and sophisticated science fiction thriller, with every conversation and scene laced with tension, constantly building around the power play between the three central characters, stuck together in a claustrophobic environment, not sure whom to trust. All the while the tension and potential for violence is rapidly rising until, of course, it brims at the boil and the film reaches its unpredictable climax, and all truths are revealed.
The film is very dialogue-driven, which puts large responsibility on the performances of its cast, however, I felt as though the cast in question were near perfect, as well as the written characters themselves. Oscar Isaac’s presentation of the bullish, egotistical, tech-mogul was delivered with confidence and expertise, with a lot of the tension rooted early on within the film, spawning from his character. His smile, deliberately duplicitous, and his mind always seemingly conspiratorial, along side his abrasive nature and obvious physicality. His boxing regime, partnered with his constant alcoholism and sharp temper fueled a constant sense of foreboding in every scene he was in. At first glance Gleeson’s Caleb comes across as Nathan’s polar opposite. He is formal, polite and pure, “a good kid with a moral compass.” But its more so once his connection with Ava develops that his character really takes shape, and Gleeson takes the challenge well. He manages to make the transition from Caleb’s early passive and innocuous character, to someone who is demanding, questioning and defiant whilst still maintaining the morality of the character that becomes important within the films final third.
Lastly, Alicia Vikander brings a flawless performance as Ava. The Swedish born actress puts her ballerina training to good use as her every movement, every footstep and facial twitch seems to be delivered with pinpoint precision, not to mention her complete stillness at times. Her discipline within her role is superb and it’s difficult not to follow Caleb and find yourself fascinated by her. Engaging and captivating in her scenes, Vikander brings an element of humanity to her character, making us feel real emotions of sympathy, compassion and infatuation, which our vital to our engagement with the story.
More impressive still is Alex Garland in his directorial debut. The intricacy of the story, and the precision in which it is told makes it feel as though Garland has been honing his craft for years. He is able to deliver a story that raises complicated philosophical questions on nature vs. nurture and the future of humanity, and, as the great Christopher Nolan has done in the past with films such as Interstellar (2014) and Inception (2010), he has managed to make them easily accessible and comprehensible whilst remaining utterly entertaining from the off. He seems to balance the meticulousness of Nolan’s work and the complexity of character and setting that almost feel Kubrickian, with his blend of low key naturalism and hi-tech stylization. Not to mention his ability to put the audience within the suspenseful drivers seat, through his use claustrophobic framing and lighting, as well as progressive soundtracks.
The story continues science fiction cinemas experimentation with the notorious Frankenstein story, however adapting the seasoned tale to one that is sharper, darker, more thought provoking and ultra-contemporary. Despite searching endlessly for flaws I haven’t been able to find any, and am seldom left in complete awe of Garlands work. Ex Machina is a masterful science fiction thriller that draws fantastic performances from its three leads. A must watch.