Exhilarating, gripping, and thought-provoking.
Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina depicts the story of Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson) a young programmer who is selected as the winner of a competition to spend a week at the recluse estate of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb however, soon learns that Nathan has requested him to test his revolutionary AI, Ava (Alicia Nikander). The film touches on many thought provoking themes such as change, evolution and humanity, and ultimately presents a unique take on a familiar concept.
Screenplay writer and author Alex Garland succeeds in translating his visions from paper to the big screen. With an extensive and successful filmography such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, Garland successfully applies his experience in film to his own piece for the first time. Garland has written and directed a film which evokes many questions about elements of society such as the unbelievable speed at which technology is changing, and ultimately what it is that separates us from this technology. Ideas and concepts of genuine artificial intelligence become more than a scientific question, but an ethical one also, whereby it seems that Nathan’s decision to undertake this work seems wrong all together. Throughout the film the audience are torn between trusting Nathan or viewing him with some scepticism. Isaac delivers an enjoyable yet unremarkable performance, nevertheless still delivering his usual charm. However he is limited by his character as the audience’s intrigue lies in the other protagonists.
The first introduction of the incredible Ava is somewhat uncomfortable as the audience attempts to comprehend just what she is. Her face is beautiful and pure, connoting ideas of an almost perfect human being. However Ava is clearly not as human as her soft face appears. Other than her hands and feet, the rest of her body is made up of hundreds of cables, and live wires, concealed in a female shaped body covered in metal mesh. Despite this un-human-like appearance, Ava quickly grows to become a character which the audience can identify with as someone human, and not a robot. Ava is enthusiastic, eager, and willing to learn more about the world in which she had been created. Nikander’s chemistry with Gleeson is captivating, and from early on in Ava’s observations, it can be concluded that Ava is very fond of Caleb.
Nathan speaks of a “Turing test” whereby Caleb will be the one to decide whether he is able to interact with Ava, an AI, without being able to distinguish between her and a real human being. Caleb and Ava take part in daily sessions of interaction which allows the audience to see her grow. It becomes clear that although she has been created by man, her needs, desires, and interests are all very real and very human. Her desperate desire to leave her confined room whereby a single wall of glass separates her and Caleb leaves the audience questioning what it is to be human, and even so far as to question the morality of the acts we are witnessing.
Domhnall Gleeson delivers a strong performance and has undoubtedly been well casted as this role. Gleeson’s character is initially passive and somewhat monotonous which potentially could have lessened the film’s merits, however Garland utilises Caleb as a vehicle for the audience as well as a character in the story. He is intelligent and intuitive, and just like the audience, is constantly questioning who his trust lies with. In some ways the audience is on the same journey as Caleb, trying to discover not only who Ava is, but whether he should trust her. However Caleb appears his most comfortable when speaking to Ava, asking questions and answering hers. Nevertheless Ava continues to be something completely alien to the audience and at no point in the film do we feel that she is a character that can be completely de-coded.
Alicia Nikander is very deserving of credit for her performance. She is successful in portraying a brand new machine which has no history, and her un-faulted performance provides the audience with a real experience of witnessing an AI for the first time. Her charming personality makes the audience champion Ava’s cause, which in itself underlines the power of human emotion and attachment, an effect which Ava has on both Caleb and the audience.
The underlying sinister nature of the film is emphasised by the film’s unique soundtrack, never overpowering the narrative yet enhancing it simultaneously. The soundtrack, like other elements of the film is constantly playing games with the audience, misdirecting us and persistently changing our views. Overall the film exudes suspense, tension and unease, catapulting to a pulsating finale. Every character in this film is unpredictable, which requires concentration and analysis of every moment even as minuscule as a moment of eye contact. Ex Machina is a completely different Sci-Fi AI movie from anything which has been created before. It is exhilarating, gripping, thought provoking; Garland sets the bar very high for his first feature.
Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland, is released in UK cinemas by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.