Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina is an impressive invigoration of genre storytelling, capturing the unnerving and elegant style of science fiction cinema that has recently been so underused in favour of big budget special effects. With a touch of the retro 70s/80s vibe reminiscent of classics such as Blade Runner, or THX 1138, the film is bold, striking and hauntingly beautiful.
The story centres on Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, About Time), a computer programmer seemingly plucked at random to assist his company’s eccentric founder Nathan (Oscar Isaacs, Inside Llewyn Davis) with top secret research into his robotic creation ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander, Seventh Son). Believing he is there to be an impartial judge of his boss’s success in creating true Artificial Intelligence, he tries to keep an objective mind; but the more of her humanity he glimpses, the less he can ignore his growing feelings towards her. As the week progresses Caleb begins to question his oddball hosts hidden intentions, the limits of his morality, and even his own existence.
The film presents a stellar cast – Gleeson is a perfect fit as Caleb, bringing his usual traits of naivety and school boy charm. He does a great job with Garland’s emotive script, really drawing us in to the character’s reactions and thought processes, and giving the audience a likeable personality to identify with.
Oscar Isaacs is brilliant as the charming but off key billionaire, descending into his sinister under layers seamlessly and abruptly. The character is brilliantly realised with a disturbing level of humour and frivolousness, no doubt the result of isolation and a megalomaniacal ego. This leads to some unforgettable scenes in which Isaacs shines; including him busting some wonderfully weird drunken dance moves in an almost unsettling experience for his guest and the audience.
However, the movie’s truly beautiful performance comes from relative newcomer Alicia Vikander. Playing the balance between AI and human in a character like this is very complicated (and is often a complete failure), but despite recognizing the emotion and range of subtle expressions as inherently human, at no point do you forget that those mesmerizing eyes belong to that of a machine. She moves and speaks in a subtly mechanical way (assisted by flawless special effects), but Vikander’s performance oozes so much innocence that even Ava’s negative actions do not detract from the audience’s sympathy.
It is a graceful performance that is complimented by the films delicate use of tension and music. While Garland knows where to use both in full force, he is also not afraid to have them be unexpectedly absent with surprising effect. What he achieves is a sense of calm when the expectation would be fear, and a sense of fear where there should be calm. It is this unnatural association that makes the film so intriguing, and gives the audience a truly tangible sense of the emotional detachment of an AI.
Of course, the subject matter of artificial intelligence has been dealt with countless times across fiction, but Garland’s use of discerningly (and disturbingly) topical elements like sexual abuse, illegal phone monitoring and use of internet search history, puts a fresh and thought provoking spin on the idea that leaves a lasting chill.
It is a spectacular achievement that deserves some serious recognition as a breakthrough film. Alex Garland will no doubt be a name we will be seeing much more of, and we can only hope that his next film will have as much seductive style and cerebral maturity as Ex Machina has proven he is capable of.