I’ve been a fan of Alex Garland’s work for quite a while. While he may have gained some following through his earlier work writing the novels, The Beach, The Tesseract and later The Coma, it has been through his screenplays that have really grabbed everyone’s attention. While his resume is fairly short, his screenplay credits are consistently stellar with 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the low budget sci-fi film, Ex Machina, would gain a lot of traction, since it marks as Garland’s directorial debut.
The story introduces us to Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a naïve, young programmer working for Bluebook, a large tech company that specializes in an internet search engine. He receives a message that he has been chosen to meet with the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his research facility. Caleb finds out that he is not having a simple visit when it is revealed that he will be taking part in a Turing test with a humanoid AI created by Nathan named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The premise is very simple, short-story-ish and borderline standard of the genre. It may seem like a turn-off at face value, but ultimately it is the execution of the film that makes it all work. A lot of it is from Alex Garland’s screenplay, which similarly to his other work, like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, in how the story involves a fairly small number of characters stuck in an enclosed space as tension builds around them. Ex Machina is significantly more restrained and low-key than those three films, but on a thematic level, it’s his most dense since Sunshine. It is a prime example of idea-driven science fiction, where it’s the themes and your own interpretations that give the film a staying power. And as idea-driven science fiction, it’s one of the best in a long time.
The film smartly avoids some of the typical concepts often posed in AI-centric science fiction, like the now repetitive exploration of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics or the even more groan-inducing “playing God” theme (the underlying similarities to Frankenstein speak for themselves). Whenever Garland does head into familiar territory, he manages to present and explore it in a way that feels fresh and thought-provoking; again, all in the execution. There are a lot of things at play in the film that gives you more than enough to think and ponder over long after the film is over. The themes range from the uncomfortable reach of large tech companies to how far we should be willing to take artificial intelligence in terms of certain emotions including sexuality. One particular subtext I found very fascinating was how the film seemed to basically be about two men who have women issues. Nathan is practically your typical alpha male and Caleb, the beta, and both of them are shown to be equally problematic in their own ways because it ultimately boils down to both of them never seeing Ava as something other than an object to own. This interpretation makes the last act, while a tad predictable, so satisfying.
As great as the writing is, the acting in the film is part of what really sells it. Oscar Isaac is incredible as Nathan. He is able to pull off a subtly intense performance with little nuances and even a decent amount of perfectly timed humor. He also tears the dance floor like nobody’s business. Domhnall Gleeson does not quite stand out because his character is more of the straight man for the weirdness of Nathan and Ava to bounce off of. I don’t have a problem with it because it still serves some of the themes that I mentioned. Alicia Vikander pulls off a star-making performance as Ava. Every little movement and syllable she utters is done with a confident subtly that is so utterly engrossing, terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time. I think Sonoya Mizuno deserves a mention for her fine performance as Kyoko, the mysterious, mute servant to Nathan.
For a first time directorial effort, the film is very visually polished. The production design by Mark Digby adds to the minimalist elements of the film and they are captured beautifully by cinematographer, Rob Hardy. The VFX team has done an outstanding job in making Ava as well realized as she is. Her believable presence as an android has provoked more awe and wonder than most big budget spectacles. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is appropriately eerie and intense. There’s a great elegance to the look and atmosphere of the film and it all serves the storytelling very well. It makes what could have been a glorified stage play into something so wonderfully cinematic.
Ex Machina is definitely one of, if not the, best film of 2015 so far. Despite a small setting, the themes are epic in scope. Alex Garland continues to impresses, but not only with his screenplay, but in his direction as well, showing a promising future as a writer/director. The performances are fantastic, with Alicia Vikander doing brilliant work and Oscar Isaac proving yet again that he is one of the great actors working today. It may be too methodical and meditative for everyone, but if you have the patience for it, the film will prove to be a very rewarding and satisfying experience, as a slow-burn thriller and a piece of intellectual science fiction filmmaking.