Debut director Alex Garland, writer of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 28 Days Later delivers a beautifully orchestrated science fiction work with Ex Machina, a terrifyingly probable and timely examination into man’s compulsion to play God.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for Internet giant Bluebook who wins an opportunity for a week one on one with the reclusive tech genius and founder of the organisation, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he arrives in the isolated high tech hideaway, he quickly sees the purpose of his presence; to be the human component in a Turin test determining whether Nathan’s prototype Ava (Alicia Vikander) has artificial intelligence.
Garland delivers such structural precision with Ex Machina; setting up a condensed period of time from the outset to give us seven days for this Turin test (which feels like a 90 minute Blade Runner “Voight-Kampff” exam); to discover if this Facebook Frankenstein can convince us that his monster is human. Garland places Nathan and Caleb into a predicament where each others success is at the expense of the other. Isaac’s Nathan needs to have his genius validated; Gleeson’s Caleb wants to show that his intellect is formidable enough to overcome the ‘bells and whistles’ of Ava. As the film progresses though, we are introduced to Ava’s awareness, and a third indistinct set of motivations began to influence proceedings.
After previous collaborations with Danny Boyle in the director’s chair, this reviewer had certainly become accustomed to Garland’s content being framed and composed with skill and style. Ex Machina demonstrates that Garland’s vision isn’t just enunciated in the narrative and the spoken dialogue but in the entire mood of the film. The setting, like a camouflaged, high-tech Hitler’s bunker, rooted into the natural landscape, mirrors Nathan’s reputation; reclusive, technologically secure and a living laboratory. The lighting shifts from cold natural light in times that they venture into the compound’s outdoor sections, to harsh unnatural red-lit flood lighting. The pulsating, minimalistic tech score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow speeds up your heart’s rhythm or makes you fill with the dread of isolation.
Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a manifestation of hubris. He’s built an infrastructure to fund his pursuits and he wants to evaluate his prototype to validate his beliefs; but he’s doing it with the tightest possible controls in place. Isaac seems to disappear behind the luscious beard and shaven head of Nathan. He’s able to make you feel like he needs to be detached to be able to so wholly influence the world with his genius. He’s able to deliver a particularly weird eccentric scene with a straight-faced sincerity (and wicked dance moves). However, as the cracks begin to appear in his (albeit limited) public facade there’s menace and fear of what he might have created.
Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb comes into this experiment with a wonder and in an attempt to become the ultimate brown nose for his boss. What he’s not prepared for is that he’s the participant who has to prove Nathan’s genius wrong by invalidating and Ava. Gleeson’s got that ‘Agent Scully’ level pragmatism about him that reeks in every judgemental gaze; and yet he’s got an emotional naivety that makes him stick out like a baby gazelle for a pride of hungry lions.
Alicia Vikander is amazing as Ava. She’s there to be objectified and marvelled at by Caleb, though not in the traditional sense, in a technological sense (the same way you might marvel at an Aston Martin for beauty and power). Yet, unlike something purely mechanical, she begins to disarm Caleb (and the audience) with her sentience. Like Caleb, every moment that you’re in front of her, you begin to see additional levels of complexity. It’s a tremendously well-paced performance.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina senses that the closer we are to the inevitable birth of artificial intelligence the more essential science fiction cinema is in examining the purpose of the pursuit. Ex Machina is the iPhone to Blade Runner‘s Walkman.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Domhnall Gleeson … Caleb
Oscar Isaac … Nathan
Alicia Vikander … Ava
Sonoya Mizuno … Kyoko