A hard sci-fi with big ideas and excellent execution from Alex Garland, led by a cast of rising stars on their best game.
Less than six months after the abominable Transformers: Age of Extinction, Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is released, a breed of sci-fi that is vastly different from Michael Bay’s monstrosity in tone, look, pace, depth and basically any other aspect you care to name, a contrast which illustrates the scope of science-fiction. Writer of Sunshine, 28 Days Later and most recently Dredd, Garland has always told creative and interesting stories within the genre; this being his first directing job, high hopes would not be unwarranted. Luckily, Ex Machina is miles better than Transformers.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery at his work for a tech company, and is invited to the home (or research facility) owned by the company’s reclusive owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). In his isolation, Nathan has been pursuing the creation of an A.I. – now that he thinks he has succeeded, Caleb is going to help him put his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to the Turing test and see if she is a genuine person.
This is all established in the first 10 minutes, and over the remaining 90, the obvious question of what it means to be human is tackeld, alongside deftly handled tangents about the nature of art, attraction, and a gentle satire of modern technology and its potential for manipulation. There’s also a pleasant and powerful feminist angle to it all. Ex Machina is hard sci-fi, never hurrying past its themes, but incorporating them neatly into the thrust of the plot: as Caleb gets closer to Ava, what will Nathan do to her once the test is complete, pass or fail? This patience is reflected in Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography, making great frequent use of windows and mirrors to emphasise the isolation of our characters, and the contrast with the hyper-modern interior of Nathan’s house with the serene green and mountainous landscape that it is tucked into. Yet crucially, Ex Machina is never boring.
This is due in no small part to the quality of the actors and their chemistry. Isaac’s Nathan is imposing physically and personally, challenging but also charismatic and mysterious. He drinks on his own and pummels a punchbag in the morning to recover – he’s a lonely alpha male. Gleeson meanwhile plays a similar note to his character in About Time, nervously excited and uncertain, but with evident intellect and a hidden steely core. Their shifting and uncertain relationship is one of the explanations as to why the film is never dull, but there is another key element to the story: Caleb and Ava’s interactions. These are some of the best moments in the film, as Vikander’s balletic and unnervingly innocent-seeming machine opens up to Gleeson, and he to her. She is simply stunning in the film, instantly capturing your attention and affection, with her obvious fascination at meeting someone new in Caleb. She is also intelligent and driven: in more than one scene she turns the test on Caleb and Vikander’s handling of it makes it feel less cruel than curious. However by the end of the film you will wish you had paid closer attention to the minutiae of it. Her’s and Isaac’s performances are at least two reasons to revisit Ex Machina. The former’s is so captivating you see past all the metal and lights (her robot body is incidentally gorgeous, familiar yet also unique), which is of course the point.
Ex Machina does not pull its punches, in story or themes. It has no shame in being of its genre, no explosions to hide behind, and nothing like the romanticism of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind to make you forget its roots. But led by three of the biggest rising names in movie acting (watch out for Isaac and Gleeson in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although why Vikander was not invited we’ll never know) and by confident direction, Garland’s debut is an original, focussed, and inviting take on familiar ideas, starting 2015 out strong. Even in the face of the sheer number of bigger films with even bigger robots soon to come, it may still be the hidden gem we’re talking about at the end of the year.
Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International, Certificate 15.