Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno.
Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland is interested in exploring thought provoking ideas about technology and the breakdown of society, and dystopian worlds. He is best known for his collaborations with director Danny Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, etc).
With his latest film though Garland tackles the concept of artificial intelligence, a theme that has been explored in science fiction films before, from the sinister rogue computer HAL in the classic 2001 A Space Odyssey through to films like Demon Seed, Steven Spielberg’s AI, to Spike Jonze’s beguiling Her, and even the recent Transcendence. Here Garland also offers a variation on the Frankenstein legend, especially with the theme of the creator losing control of his creation. This is a dark and disturbing cautionary tale about science, technology and man’s hubris in trying to tamper with the natural order.
With Ex Machina Garland also steps behind the camera to make his directorial debut. But his style is nowhere near as robust, energetic or as visceral as Boyle’s. He has a minimalist style, a static, slow burning approach that is far more claustrophobic and oppressive. But he also handles the material with a confidence and assurance that belies the fact that this is his first film as a director. The film is stylish and haunting and, like the best sci-fi movies, raises some unsettling questions that don’t have easy answers.
Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a nerdy computer coder who works for a giant Internet search company. He is chosen by his brilliant but elusive employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac, from Inside Llewyn Davis, etc) to spend a week at his bunker like compound in Alaska. Nathan is a billionaire computer genius who seems to have grown cynical of the future of mankind and has retreated to his bunker like compound.
But rather than they idyllic relaxing holiday he expected, Caleb is actually being charged with helping Nathan conduct a Turing test with artificial intelligence. Nathan has created a lifelike android which he has named Ava (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, recently seen in Testament To Youth, etc). Caleb is to have a series of conversations with Ava to determine whether a machine can actually have intelligence and evolve. But Ava proves to have an emotional intelligence and cunning that neither man expected. Soon Caleb is caught up in a subtle power struggle between the controlling Nathan and Ava.
Ex Machina is basically a three hander drama, and Garland draws solid performances from his leads. It is a deliberate move on Garland’s part also to give the three main characters the names of prominent Biblical characters. Gleeson brings a vulnerability and naivety and innocence to his role as Caleb, who is out of his depth once the real extent of Nathan’s vision is revealed. And we’ve seen a lot of Vikander on screen lately, and here she has an eerie and unsettling and even alluring presence as Ava. She manages to pull of the subtlety required to play a robot, but there is a sense of a keen intelligence beneath the surface. She develops a palpable sexual chemistry with Gleeson that adds an unsettling dynamic to their shared scenes.
For his part Isaac, sporting a buzz cut and full beard, brings a creepy intensity, psychotic quality and aggressive nature to his portrayal of the mysterious and reclusive Nathan. He is an egotistical control freak who seems to have given up on mankind and is looking to the future. Isaac captures the contradictory nature of his mad scientist character well. He moves between being reasonable and personable to being terrifying and paranoid, and has quite an intimidating physical presence here that is quite a contrast to his more recent role in A Most Violent Year.
Ex Machina is a low budget movie, but Garland has used his limited resources effectively, and this looks like a bigger budget film. The special effects that create the see through skin for Vikander’s Ava are quite spectacular and realistic. Mark Digny’s production design is also good. The sterile interior of Nathan’s house is quite claustrophobic, with its glass walls, maze-like corridors and secret locked rooms, and closed circuit televisions everywhere to monitor the whole house.
Garland uses the stunning locations to create an otherworldly look for the film. The film looks good, especially with cinematographer Rob Hardy’s beautiful work with the locations (Norway standing in for Alaska). Hardy uses light and colour to create a distinctly unsettling mood. The stunning shots as Nathan’s helicopter flies over sweeping rugged hills and valleys is reminiscent of our first glimpse of the theme park in Jurassic Park.
Ex Machina is an ambitious directorial debut from Garland. Part cautionary sci-fi tale, part thriller, it is an unsettling and thought provoking experience that raises many questions about what it is that makes us human, the society we live in today and the possible future we are creating for ourselves.