Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleesson and Alicia Vikander
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: January 23rd
Ex Machina, the directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), tackles one of the most familiar tropes in all of sci-fi: if we can create a machine that can replicate human behaviour, then what is it about us that makes us human in the first place? Of course this idea has a long and varied history in science fiction, from using human likeness to deceive as with Evil Maria in Metropolis or the different versions of the Terminator; to examining the underlying factors in human emotions, for example in Her or Robot and Frank; and the amphetamine fuelled, paranoia of the writer Philip K. Dick often concerned themselves with ideas of humanity and our control over it. Of course, tackling such a well established theme could be a rather risky move. Failure to provide any insight or expansion can lead to a film becoming overly familiar and uninteresting; an example of this would be last year’s turkey Transcendence. So it is a pleasure to say that what Garland does here is to take this central idea and add some freshness to it.
The story revolves around a young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition to spend a week with Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of a search engine company Caleb works for. Caleb learns at his arrival in Nathan’s mountain retreat that the competition was a ruse to find someone to carry out a series of Turning Test interviews on an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) in order to determine if she is a sentient being or not.
It is the conflict between the biological and artifice, echoed in the architecture of Nathan’s house with its sleek modernist look that incorporates the natural rocky mountainside into its design, which drives the story forward. As his sessions with Ava continue, he finds himself continuously drawn towards her even though she has been designed in such a way that the majority of what we see of her is more mechanical than human. Increasingly, he becomes more suspicious of Nathan’s motives and the overtly friendly macho exterior he puts on.
Caleb’s suspicions of Nathan mirrors our own, as it becomes apparent early in the film that Nathan is clearly someone we can’t trust. His behaviour with Caleb on their first meeting rings false, it doesn’t take long for him to manipulate Caleb’s overwhelmed reaction in order to boost his own ego, he takes Caleb’s statement that a successful sentient A.I. would be the work of Gods to mean that he himself is a God. However the film floats the idea that Ava’s warning about Nathan as well as her overall interest in Caleb could all be down to Nathan’s designs leaves the question of how much control Ava has on her own actions. It is to the films credit that it leaves you asking these questions right until all the twists and turns are revealed towards the end.
While it is the ideas and themes of the film that makes Ex Machina interesting, it is the performances of the principal players that make the film work. Isaac brings the right amount of menace to Nathan while at the same time giving him some drunken self-loathing that keeps him from feeling one note while Gleeson is completely convincing as an ordinary but meek man who becomes increasingly out of his depth. Special mention as well to Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan’s mute helper Kyoko but the star of the show is Vikander as Ava who brings an almost sensual quality to the human aspect of her character while subtly conveying through her movements the mechanics of her body that go beyond the impressive translucent CGI that has been created for her on screen.
It is these performances and Garland’s commitment to exploring the ideas it raises and following them to their logical conclusion, that makes Ex Machina such an intriguing piece of work to watch. While it doesn’t have quite the lasting impact as perhaps it should have and personally I could have done without the last minute or two, there is still plenty here to enjoy and for fans of sci-fi it is nice to see a film that takes the genre seriously and takes on a familiar trope and attempts to update them in an interesting way.