Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Genre: Thriller/ Sci Fi
24 year old Caleb (Gleeson) works as a coder at the world’s biggest internet company and wins a competition to spend a week at the private retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). When Caleb arrives he learns that he will be taking part in an experiment to test the world’s first artificial intelligence that takes the form of a robot named Ava (Vikander) and as the test takes place it reveals dark lessons for both of them.
When very talented writers and cinematographers that have played a key part in great films make the step up to sitting behind the camera and directing a film for the first time it is always fascinating to find out how they succeed (or fail) at that. Well, while the likes of Transcendence disappointed, if Ex Machina are the standards that Alex Garland will deliver when writing and directing then hopefully this is the first film of many. The standards Garland has set for himself here suggests the work of a true auteur and is an intelligent, gripping and engaging film from start to finish and thankfully (and refreshingly), does not go for lazy or clichéd twists.
The words ‘science fiction’ are often applied to films that are an insult to the genre, but like all the best science fiction films, Ex Machina is a film that skilfully combines engaging characters and stimulating ideas that provoke lengthy discussion long after the final credits have finished and also repeat viewings as it is a narrative experience that is in some ways enhanced by knowing the future narrative developments.
Artificial intelligence has always been a subject examined in literature and films, and with technology advancing all the time is becoming an increasingly topical and almost real subject, but yet though Ex Machina takes an initial concept that has without a doubt been examined countless times before, Garland skilfully takes it to new places. There are themes and ideas at the centre of Ex Machina that were indeed examined in last year’s low budget Brit Sci-fi film The Machine (to read my review of that, click here) but while that failed to ultimately utilise the potential of some interesting ideas and descend into cliché, Ex Machina skilfully avoids such pitfalls.
Crucially, Garland treats the audience with respect and expositional dialogue too is kept short and swift with theoretical discussions between Caleb and Nathan only serving to promote further thoughts and ideas to enhance the themes of the narrative as the relationship between Caleb and Ava develops.
The deliberately slow burn, dialogue heavy pace allows an increasing and overbearing atmosphere and mood to set in, but yet despite this, Garland continues to surprise us with narrative developments that are genuinely unexpected. One key aspect that plays a major part in the narrative is the use of sexuality by Ava, with humans it can be an involuntary or subconscious response that makes us do things we otherwise perhaps would not, and if an artificial intelligence creation were to resemble an attractive human, how would they use this, if at all? Ava uses both the strengths of being human and being a supremely intelligent machine, but what about any of the weaknesses of either? I of course do not want to give too much away, but it leads to an increasingly complex relationship between the film’s three main characters that lead to some very unexpected, revelatory and thought provoking plot developments.
The performances are also spot-on; Domhnall Gleeson continues to excel in every role he plays and is excellent as Caleb, while the always outstanding Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Nathan. However the star performer is Alicia Vikander as Ava; to go into too much detail as just how exceptional her performance is may enter spoiler territory, but her performance is simply incredible.
From a technical point of view Ex Machina is also extremely well made; Garland’s static camera only enhances the mood of isolation, claustrophobia and intensity. Admittedly his frequent (but admittedly beautiful) shots of the landscape around Nathan’s isolated house sometimes feel like him enjoying being behind the camera and seeing what he can film a little too much, but they do add a sense of isolation to the narrative which enhances both the mood and its themes. The set design of Nathan’s house is also perfect as it is not too futuristic or over the top and the CGI of Ava’s body is seamless in what is otherwise a very non CGI film. Also enhancing the narrative experience is Rob Hardy’s supremely crisp cinematography and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s tech-tastic, but never overbearing 9like in some films of this genre) score.
What is most refreshing about Ex Machina is that Garland skilfully avoids all the clichés so many similar films lazily use to resolve plot points, making Ex Machina have an unforgettable climax. This is a film of deep intelligence and respect for its genre, and also without doubt will be one of the best films of 2015.
Garland proves to be just as skilful with the camera as he does with words in a superb directorial debut that signals the work of a true auteur; Ex Machina is an intelligent and thought provoking examination of some very topical themes and finally a film that actually deserves to be classed in the genre of science fiction.