When films like Alien and Terminator were first released, the reality of true artificial intelligence seemed like nothing more than a distant, decidedly dystopian nightmare – pure science fiction fantasy. However today, with anything from personal assistants on our mobile phones, to robotic cars that can drive themselves, a world dominated by computers doesn’t seem so far-fetched. With the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warning us against the dangers of artificial intelligence, Ex Machina is an appropriately timed consideration of consciousness, creativity, and the potential disasters resulting from arrogance. London-born author and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) makes the shift to the director’s chair with this debut, in which he demonstrates an ability to compose a believable science fiction story whilst also revealing directorial flair with a beautiful, claustrophobic style.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a talented computer programmer working for the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook. Seemingly out of nowhere, he wins a competition that sees him whisked away to a home in the remote Scandinavian wilderness. Here, he will spend a week with the reclusive, enigmatic founder and CEO of his company: Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan is a genius engineer who wrote Bluebook’s base code at the age of thirteen, and now spends his days heavily working out, getting drunk, and creating sentient humanoid machines. Caleb learns that he has been specifically chosen by Nathan in order to take part in a ground-breaking experiment: to interact with an artificially intelligent prototype called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and to see if she can convince Caleb that she is self-aware.
Garland made a smart move by tackling a relatively small-scale production for his first endeavor. Instead of hiring a cast of many characters with multiple locations, Ex Machina focuses purely on three individuals in only one setting, and explores the relationships that unfold. With the setting’s remote and isolated atmosphere, the tension is there from the start and only builds with the proceedings, as Caleb begins to question to what extent Nathan can be trusted. The story itself is simple and is established within minutes, by getting straight to the point, Garland’s characters have the room to grow naturally and for the audience to settle into the world that is presented. Like Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, Garland introduces a type of science fiction that doesn’t step too far away from the realms of present-day reality, as Nathan’s search engine and its capabilities bear strong similarities to the power of Google and Facebook. This is where Ex Machina does well, in its simple yet elegant execution.
The sheer talent of the three main performances, though, is what really makes this film stand out. As Nathan, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) brings together a perfect balance of charisma and likability with a darker, more sinister edge. His mental game of chess with Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, Unbroken) is fascinating to watch, and Garland lends every scene between the two a sense of unease. Whilst Isaac certainly has a lot of the picture’s most memorable moments (including a fantastic dance sequence that few will see coming), Alicia Vikander steals the show. She plays an artificially intelligent being with a most believable childlike innocence, as if she is learning everything about the world around her for the first time, and glides about her glass cage with an eerie, ethereal air (indeed a product of her time at the Royal Swedish Ballet School). Like Caleb, we are captivated and fascinated by her as she devours knowledge and never sleeps.
From Frankenstein to I, Robot, the concept of man creating life with disastrous consequences is not a new one – be it an A.I system becoming self-aware, a cyborg remembering its past life, or a man-made Tyrannosaurus causing havoc. Each effort to portray man trying and failing to play God needs to bring something new to the table in order to feel original in this crowded genre. And in the case of Ex Machina, it certainly presents a new approach in terms of atmosphere, characterization, and setting.
Garland clearly knows what he’s doing with his direction, crafting a story and getting the best out his actors. Ex Machina is a stunning film,with a superb control of tone, an undercurrent of sinister suspicion perfectly complimented by the subtly unsettling score. Along with a clever use of sound design, the film creates a wonderfully immersive experience, but in places feels a little predictable. Overall, however, problems with Ex Machina are few and far between, resulting in a deeply disturbing thriller that explores the murky moral ramifications of creating a superior being.Continue Reading Issue #35
January 21, 2015 (UK) | April 10, 2015 (US)
1 hr. 48 min.
Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander