Writer Alex Garland is probably still best known for his 1996 adventure novel The Beach, but has spent the best part of the last decade working almost entirely in genre cinema. His first two major efforts, 28 Days Later and Sunshine both began with brilliant premises, only to impair themselves with lacklustre final acts. He halted that unfortunate trend with his last films as a writer/producer, Never Let Me Go and Dredd, but they were both adaptations of others’ work. Now graduating to directing as well, Garland’s stuck with sci-fi, but Ex Machina is as disparate a sci-fi film from the action-packed Dredd as can be, and might well be his best work to date.
Taking place in an unspecified near future, Ex Machina limits itself almost entirely to a single location. It forgoes almost anything resembling an action scene, and crafts it’s gripping tension around a series of interviews. We follow Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer coder working for a huge, Google-trumping software company called Bluebook. The film opens as he wins some sort of prize in his office that we soon learn is a one week stay at the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of the company. Nathan’s now a reclusive man whose home is a sprawling underground facility on a private island somewhere that he uses to pioneer his new ideas.
Garland’s sharp script excises any expository waffle a movie like this could have begun with, instead allowing us to learn who these characters are and what their position is naturally through their dialogue exchanges as they meet; a scene which efficiently conveys that these two men haven’t met before but know who each other are. As Nathan, Isaac is almost unrecognizable as the star of Inside Llewyn Davis, bulked up, shaven-headed and sporting a large unkempt beard, his appearance communicates an appropriate level of unease in conflict with his outwardly welcoming words to Caleb. The notion that something might not be quite right with Nathan, a man who’s been living in virtual isolation for some time now, is also emphasised by his constant (solo) drinking.
The true purpose of Caleb’s week with him is soon revealed to be a more enticing prospect than Caleb had originally imagined. He is to perform a Turing test on Nathan’s latest experiment, that is, to see if it can exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human. The twist to this is Caleb already knows the test subject is not actually a human; a factor Nathan believes will make the test more ground-breaking. He is interviewing ‘Ava’, I don’t know exactly what the correct word for her would be, Cyborg? Android? She has metallic grey parts to her body and her power core is visible in her transparent lower torso, but her hands, feet, and most importantly face resemble that of a human. She’s one of the more remarkable robots to appear on screen recently, and the effects work is flawless, particularly impressive for a low-budget film.
Ava is played by A Royal Affair star Alicia Vikander in an eye-catching performance with just the right level of mystery to it. Her co-stars both already seem to be on the way to the big leagues (they’ll both be in the new Star Wars), something further confirmed by their work here, but this could well see the young Swedish actress join them in their ascent.
Ex Machina has a few clear influences, most evidently Blade Runner and its Voight-Kampff test, but it has a good number of its own ideas to explore on the nature of artificial intelligence. It has some obvious, and I’m sure co-incidental thematic similarities to last year’s Her, but it reminded me of that film in another manner; in that Garland has apparently thought his premise through with great care. Seemingly every question I could think of about this technology and its relationship to humans Garland has cleverly anticipated and provided an answer for. Caleb’s further conversations with Nathan as the test proceeds may well have him standing in for the audience. It helps that he’s a believably intelligent man too, as Garland has characters explain aspects of the technology in a manner that never talks down to the viewer.
Although there’s some familiarity to the themes, Ex Machina emerges as a distinct and thoughtful film. This is assisted by its unique production design and a slow-burning atmosphere of increased pressure that the film utilises for a few markedly unpredictable plot twists, including its shocking conclusion. It’s a very strong début for Garland as a director, and I hope a sign of even better things to come from him. Plus the most disturbing scene of disco dancing I’ve ever seen.