Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
Written by: Alex Garland
Running Time: 108 mins
Release date: 23rd January 2015
Alex Garland has made a reputation for his outstanding script work. The writer of Sunshine and 28 Days Later now takes his first stab at directing. A science fiction drama that has all the hallmarks of a sci-fi film and yet he presents a dark psychological thriller where the human condition is his toy.
Caleb is a computer coder for a successful search engine. He wins the chance to spend a week in the secret retreat of the company’s CEO and whizz kid, Nathan. What Caleb doesn’t realise is that it wasn’t a prize just to hang out with the boss but an experiment, in which Caleb has to determined whether an artificial intelligence that Nathan has created, called Ava, has human qualities and emotions. As Caleb starts to quiz the female robot, he finds himself being attracted to her and being drawn into Nathan’s dangerous emotional games.
Basically a three hander set in a claustrophobic environment, Garland is interested in the people and not the science. Using the Turing test, Caleb seeks to find if the responses of Ava make her a truly conscious being. In rooms with no windows, corridors that seem to go on forever and cameras watching his every move, Caleb is trapped in a confine where the walls seem to be closing in.
What Garland then does is have scenes of long conversations, concentrating more on character than situation while at the same time, pushing up the tension. You know something is far from right here and yet you cannot put your finger on it. Being his first time behind the camera, you’d imagine some flaws but this is a confident and surprisingly perfect debut. Having worked with Danny Boyle on several films, he has obviously picked up some handy hints on presentation and visuals. The use of lighting also plays an important part, with the confine shutting up for power cuts, leading to a stark yet intrusive red covering the screen.
Garland’s script is strong and clever. Taking time to explore each character, he allows them to get under our skin and into our heads. He treats his audience like adults, never speaking down to them but giving us three very different individuals, each with their own motives but he doesn’t lay his cards on the table immediately, instead drip feeding us information. There’s very little action as such until the finale and even then, it comes quietly at us.
He has also surrounded himself with three excellent performances. Domhnall Gleeson, last seen in the strangely brilliant Frank, is Caleb, a wide-eyed computer geek who slowly grows in statue as the film progresses, as he realises that nothing is what it seems. Seeming to be cast as the “everyman” role, Gleeson quietly moves through the film, impressing as he goes.
Oscar Isaac, who also stars in the other big release this week, A Most Violent Year, is magnificent as Nathan. It would have been so easy to have played this megalomania in full “nuts” mode, yet Isaac almost underplays every scene. You feel can should trust him and yet there’s something not quite right. He’s like a best friend with a deep, dark secret that he wants to share. It’s an effective, incredibly creepy performance that will make you feel unsettled throughout. Also, you’ll never be able to listen to Get Down Saturday Night again without getting chills.
Finally, making up the trio, is Alicia Vikander as Ava. Popping up everywhere at the moment, Vikander’s turn as the artificial intelligence is superb, bringing humanity and emotions without ever once changing her expression. It’s full of subtle head movements that speak volumes. With half her body made up of robotics, Vikander manages to engage us, as if she is the only real human in the film. With her performances in Testament Of Youth, the excellent A Royal Affair and now this, she has a big future ahead of her.
Ex Machina is not the film that you think it looks like. This is a far more intelligent and thought-provoking piece about the human condition, like a cerebral version of Westworld. Imagine taking out all the action sequences from Blade Runner, leaving you with the relationship between Harrison Ford’s Dekker and Sean Young’s Rachel and you have Ex Machina. It will be very interesting to see what Alex Garland will do next. I, for one, can’t wait.