Ex Machina

Posted: February 1, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Caleb (Gleeson) is a computer programmer working for a company named Bluebook, the world’s largest search engine. When he wins a companywide competition he is invited to spend a week with the CEO of Bluebook, Nathan (Isaac).

Nathan lives a near solitary existence in a high tech house located in the middle of nowhere, and Caleb has to be taken there by helicopter. When he arrives Nathan advises him that by virtue of winning the completion he has won a very special prize, he will be the human component in a Turing Test (the test to determine whether a machine has true artificial intelligence in case you didn’t already know that/haven’t seen The Imitation Game). Whilst Caleb is expecting to be faced with a computer, he is actually introduced to Ava (Vikander) a humanoid robot with the face of a beautiful woman.

As the week progresses Caleb finds himself bonding with Ava as he tries to assess whether she is truly alive, meanwhile he finds Nathan’s behaviour increasingly erratic as the enigmatic genius becomes more messianic, whilst spending increasing amounts of time blind drunk.

As it becomes clear that if Ava fails the Turing Test Nathan may well scrap her, Caleb is forced to choose between man and machine, but is anyone in the house quite who they appear to be?
And so after many years of scriptwriting (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, Never Let Me Go…) Alex Garland steps behind the camera for his directorial debut (although he did the script as well) and an assured debut it is. Whatever your view of Ex Machina is it would be hard to deny that it doesn’t feel like a debut, so accomplished is every facet of the production.

Given that, expansive vista outside of the house aside, most of the action takes place inside of Nathan’s minimalist home, Garland makes every shot look beautiful. The house is filled with reflective surfaces and Garland uses them to the full, with characters frequently shown alongside their reflections— a commentary on each character’s duality perhaps?—or in shadow—suggesting none of them are quite what they appear to be maybe?

This means that what could have been a very sterile, very workmanlike film instead looks as beautiful as last year’s Under the Skin, another film about a beautiful woman who isn’t actually human but who fools others, and maybe even herself, into believing she is.

And this is before we get to the script, which given Garland’s pedigree is, for the most part, very solid. This is a science fiction film very much in the hard sci-fi mould, and the script convinces…mostly. Strangely the notion that Nathan has created a thinking machine is less of a stretch than the fact that he’s created a thinking machine that looks like Alicia Vikander, but the film convinces for the most part in its near future setting, so that nothing we encounter seems that impossible. It’s a thought provoking film that doesn’t let its ideas run away with it, Garland could have let things get bogged down in large chunks of exposition, but for the most part he’s content to let us see snippets of conversations between Caleb and Nathan, or Caleb and Ava. This is great from the perspective of not letting the film get bogged down, and keeps the running time pacey, but does mean that, at times, you’re left wanting more. In particular it would have been nice to see more interaction between Ava and Caleb.

Whilst not strictly speaking a three hander Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander share the bulk of the action and dialogue and all three are excellent. Gleeson is quietly impressive as the doe eyed innocent who, right from the off seems out of his depth, but who grows as the film progresses into someone willing to take decisive action. Isaac is terrifying as the full on Nathan, his shaven head and full beard making it clear this is a man whose personality is off kilter, even before he starts misquoting Caleb and drinking himself into a stupor. Nathan is a genius who’s clearly spent too long alone with his own thoughts, and Isaac nails the role without ever having to resort to hamming it up. This leaves Vikander as Ava, portraying an almost childlike innocence side by side with a hint of something darker and more manipulative behind those doe eyes. She’s wonderful, every movement and gesture filled with meaning, her transformation into the android Ava completed by some wonderfully understated cgi.

I enjoyed it a lot, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on I feel I should have liked it even more. Maybe it’s because, whilst Garland’s script contains more humanity and humour than you’d get in most hard sci-fi, this still feels a trifle clinical in places, and whilst there is an intriguing twist in the tail, nothing that happens is that unexpected if you’re at all familiar with the genre.

Well directed and superbly performed, this is a thought provoking, intelligent science fiction film that looks gorgeous, and whilst it isn’t perfect, its flaws are few and far between.

I recommend you ava look at this…

  1. Mim says:

    Hmm. Not so sure about this one. I did want to see Kingsman but that’s had such mixed reviews I’m now not sure about that one either! I should probably pop downstairs and see what the chaps on SFX/Total Film made of it; a few of them have similar taste to me so if they like it, I probably will…

  2. starkers70 says:

    Well I thought it was good, thoughtul sci-fi for the most part. Kingsman should be the next thing I see!

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