DIR/WRI: Alex Garland • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Rob Hardy • ED: Mark Day • MUS: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury • DES: Mark Digby • CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
With consistent critical acclaim under his belt, it has almost become incumbent upon sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland to take authorship of a production of his own in order to truly earn the all-hallowed hyphen in “writer-director”.
Anyone who feared that the writer’s directorial debut would abandon the cerebral, doughty fare of his previously-penned Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and roughly 15 minutes of 2011’s Dredd need not have worried – more than any of Garland’s previous efforts, Ex Machina weighs the heavier side of science fiction and what it means to be human. A question as old as the genre itself and exhausted to boot, most would say; however, it is not in the concept itself but the quiet confidence of its delivery that Garland establishes himself as much more than a pen on paper.
Eternal everyman Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer invited to spend a week at the mountaintop retreat of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive tech magnate on the cusp of creating true artificial intelligence. His brilliant but overbearing host has chosen Caleb to be the human component in the Turing test, designed to determine whether the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is truly sentient – but as the test progresses, Caleb begins to wonder if he himself isn’t part of a larger game between creator and creation.
It is in the quiet, understated interactions between the characters that Garland truly delivers a worthy examination of our notion of identity. Much like most of Garland’s previous work, Ex Machina sees a small core of characters thrown together under extreme confines and examines the shifting power-dynamics that follow.
Caleb’s sessions with Ava unfurl with deliberate care and increasing warmth, punctuated by exchanges with the acerbic Nathan; by turns swaggeringly drunk and startlingly – almost savagely – lucid, Ava’s creator seems simultaneously eager to see Caleb fail even as he seeks validation of his own genius, so that their every conversation becomes as much of a power-play as that between man and machine.
Spare cinematography and low, throbbing synths manage to make a prison of Nathan’s airy mountain home, the latter landing somewhere squarely between Blade Runner and Mass Effect without being overly indebted to either.
However, it is unquestionably Vikander’s turn as Ava that pulls the film head-and-shoulders above most other efforts on the same theme. Beguiling and beseeching by turns, Ava is as empathetic as she is utterly alien, and Vikander underplays these contradictions with all the insidiousness they require to avoid lapsing into yet another iteration of woman-as-object on screen.
Restrained, understated and above all atmospheric, Ex Machina may not break new ground on a much-overplayed theme but provides a breath of fresh air nonetheless, delivering a sci-fi thriller with easy sex and violence that are an afterthought to something more cerebral.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Ex Machina is released 16th January 2015