Release Date: 21 January 2015
Running Time: 108 min
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
At times it seems that much of modern science fiction cinema has traded in ideas for flashy pyrotechnics. As much fun as films like Pacific Rim and Guardians of the Galaxy are, they don’t really address anything deeper than cool technology and funny aliens. Enter stage left Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a smart, thought-provoking sci-fi that’s not about blowing up spaceships and more about blowing your mind, man.
Despite its remarkably low-budget (around eleven million Euros) and small cast (this is largely a three-hander) Garland’s debut film as director is filled with big ideas as he explores notions of evolution, instinct, identity and consciousness. Fresh-faced, slightly awkward programmer Caleb (Gleeson) works for the world’s biggest tech company Bluebook. As part of a company wide contest Caleb wins a chance to stay for a week with Oscar Isaac’s reclusive CEO Nathan; a bushy bearded, hard-drinking hybrid of Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes. Instead of wild parties and extreme sports (or whatever bored billionaires do) Caleb is asked to participate in a top secret experiment with Ava; potentially the world’s first true artificial intelligence. What follows is an absorbing, thought provoking examination of huge ethical and philosophical issues, as Caleb and Nathan try to figure out whether Ava is fully conscious or merely simulating self-awareness. At times it’s a little too talky, but each conversation adds a bit more fuel to the intellectual fire and further develops the central themes. If this all sounds a bit worthy and dull, fear not, Garland’s script is taut and propulsive. Each of the main characters is shaded with enough ambiguity to raise questions about their true motives and much of Ex Machina plays like a psychological thriller. That Ex Machina has a fiercely intelligent script is no big surprise, as a writer Garland is responsible for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine. What is surprising is the confidence and capability this first timer shows on a visual level. Nathan’s high-tech smart mansion – a coldly reflective space filled with hard, straight lines and panes of glass – is shot with a chilly severity that is neatly echoed and contrasted with the remote and rugged nature that surrounds it.
The central cast each turn in quality, multi-layered performances. Oscar Isaac is mercurial as the tech genius Nathan, switching from seductive to menacing to outright creepy. He has the air of a slightly deranged Roman emperor no longer capable of talking with mere mortals. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb begins as a gawky fanboy hugely out of his depth, but gradually starts to show an unexpected steeliness. However it’s Alicia Vikander, as the synthetic life form Ava, that steals the show. She gives a perfectly modulated performance as the pivotal AI. Recognisably inhuman but never hokey she stays just on the right side of the uncanny valley, aided by her character’s sleek and slightly perturbing design. A smart sci-fi film that isn’t afraid to ask some big questions, there’s nothing artificial about the intelligence of Ex Machina.