Swapping dystopia for his own brand of utopia, Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go presents his intelligent debut as director ‘Ex Machina’. Continuing the run of thought provoking science-fiction in contemporary cinema, his intimate story follows geeky computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to the isolated lair of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), after he receives an invite as a prize to a competition. Whizzed off to the secret location by helicopter, he has no idea what to expect and is thrilled when informed that he is to take part in a Turing Test experiment with the highly advanced robot that his boss has built. The machine in question is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with the test taking place over one week, across several monitored encounters. These meetings, where Caleb and Ava get the chance to ‘know’ each other, form the structure and pacing of the film, giving a steady, if at times repetitive, platform in which to handle the ever-expansive psychological and technological themes.
Set in only one slickly futuristic yet somehow cold creepy environment with only three predominant characters, the fixed set up lends the film an unnerving sense of claustrophobia that lurks throughout. The relationships between the three are never simple, always transforming and simmering with complex tension. The script is sharp and intellectual and makes every conversation that takes place interesting and full of acumen. Regular power cuts in the building serve as a plot device as Caleb, Nathan and Ava try and stay one step ahead of each other, and in turn keeps the audience not only guessing what will happen next but also pondering the all encompassing questions that it poses of humanity, artificial intelligence and the blurred lines in between.
Because we are trapped in a tight space with only a few faces to keep us company, it is even more important that the acting is up to scratch. Gleeson certainly works as the wide-eyed inquisitive central figure, and his casting brings out comparisons and similarities with a certain episode Charlie Brooker’s sci-satirical series Black Mirror in which he plays a man who dies and is rebuilt through his virtual personality on social media. This could easily be mistaken for a feature length sequel. As good as Gleeson is though, he is third best behind Isaac and Vikander. The former is menacing and controlling in his role, but also brings black humour with excellent delivery and a shockingly good dance sequence. Alicia Vikander portrays the humanoid Ava with such careful precision, every expression and every step is measured to perfection and I could listen to her talk all day.
Alex Garland brings his already accomplished novelistic craft to the project, as well as flexing his directorial muscles, bringing refreshing creativity and visual flair. In ‘Ex Machina’, he sets and establishes a scary setting in which his absorbing concept can be explored, and though a couple of minor plotholes leave things unanswered, his ideas are given ample room to develop. What stands out and has a lasting effect though are the actions of the fascinating characters, and the consequences of them. Gleeson and Vikander’s man and machine connection make this glimpse at what the future may hold far more human than Her, as Oscar Isaac pulls the strings of reclusive genius Nathan, the manipulator of this modern monster of a film.