Alex Garland delivers a sci-fi masterpiece on planet earth.
A truly gripping three handed confined film, Ex Machina is a step in the right direction for science fiction that seems to be too frequently focused on big budgets or immense gore. Having seen rapturous reviews of the film by others, I went into Ex Machina with a weight of expectation, the two male leads were acclaimed, but I haven’t seen many of Oscar Isaac’s recent roles and Domhnall Gleeson has more frequently been a humourous lead surrounded by an established cast as in About Time or Frank. Screening as a very limited run, the theatre was buzzing with anticipation of the film that had set critical tongues wagging, my own ready to make its own judgement call.
Ex Machina retreads the concept of Artificial Intelligence with reclusive tech visionary Nathan (played by Isaac) drawing a low level employee from his search engine company (think google, but even more dominant), Caleb to inspect and assess his newest foray into AI, Ava (played by relative newcomer Alicia Vikander). The purpose of the trip is to determine if Ava will pass the Turing Test, a common AI benchmark which discovers if the observer can determine if they are interacting with a human or machine. Nathan has created Ava with the assistance of internet surveillance and this itself is a clever stem on the genre as well as a topical aside to modern concerns over privacy and access. While this premise is in itself intriguing, its the layers of Nathans control that he holds in his carefully curated home, mysterious happenings and the concept of learned humanity that bring Ex Machina to life.
We are treated to themes of religion, Nathan as the self appointed god, creating life in Ava while dictating the actions of Caleb. His control extends even to his domain, a picturesque home come laboratory that is built into the side of a mountain, the rock face intertwining with concrete surfaces reflecting Nathan’s assumed control over all he sees before him. We are given Adam and Eve symmetry in Caleb and Ava with the first man and woman divided by Nathans rules in this lush green paradise. Ex Machina looks to move concepts of humanity forward as sci-fi and AI films often do, while also referring to traditional religious doctrine about holding us back.
The performances are captivating, each of the three leads bringing different attitudes and following around each other in defined character arcs. Domhnall Gleeson assumed the wide eyed naive worker, dazzled by the technology laid before him but slowly losing himself under the games being played at his expense. Similarly, Isaac assumes a role of confidence, his wealth and god complex played out with Nathan and Ava as pawns as he cycles through alcoholic binges and spirited exercise fueled recovery, his tightly controlled world changing as new elements come into play. Alicia Vikander is perhaps the most revelatory performance, given that she is the least human of the trio for much of the film, her subtlety is entrancing and she relies only on facial expressions to communicate meaning. At no point are you truly aware if there is a suggestion or good or evil in the characters but humanity is key across the performances from 3 young actors looking to hit their stride and whom we can hope to see develop further with great anticipation.
While veering away from spoilers, this was always going to be a hard movie to end, it is important to reach some kind of a statement about humanity and as a filmmaker i think Alex Garland has been able to achieve that without being too flamboyant. As the tension builds I did have some confusion as to how the film would play out, and there are enough miscues and twists to leave you guessing until the end of the third act, but ultimately it is a satisfying end, even if we have been slowly counter programmed to expect the worst by the new wave of television.
Visually Ex Machina is stunning, a real victory for special effects as Ava is flawless as she interplays with Garlands clean cut set design and use of colour throughout the film. Splashes of red, green and yellow are thrown against mountains of grey and more earthy tones, the colours settling into each other, highlights thrown to jerk you out of your comfort zone as the tension increases. Ava is achieved splendidly, I am more than convinced of Vikander actually being AI at this point and it will take me some time to not question that when I see her in other films. The partial coverings of skin are joined seamlessly to the artificial framework of the mechanoid and the attention to detail can be seen when viewing gaps in her exterior to the walls behind her in shot. While this may remain a comparatively low budget affair, Garland has presented a film of stunning beauty and crisp vision.
Ex Machina may be remembered as a fine film for 2015 or it may join other films in the AI framework like Blade Runner and Ghost In The Shell as cult classics which both define genre and push technology. The questions that it asks about surveillance culture, humanity and control are all compellingly dealt with and accentuated by a fine cast, stunning visuals and dramatic storytelling. Ex Machina deserves a wide release and similarly to Whiplash in 2014, it will likely be a film that continues to grow as rapturous word of mouth spreads.