Acclaimed screenwriter Alex Garland has established a strong career working with genre, especially in his collaborations with director Danny Boyle, so it makes sense that his long-anticipated directorial debut would be a genre picture itself. Following in the wake of films like ‘Under the Skin’ and ‘Snowpiercer’, he has contributed something equally as distinctive and impressive to science fiction with ‘Ex Machina’, a cold, calculated and original film that demands to be seen on the big screen as soon as possible.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer working for tech company Bluebook, wins an opportunity to spend a week observing the head of the company, computer genius Nathan (Oscar Isaacs). When he arrives at Nathan’s isolated estate, he is put to task with a tantalising prospect – applying the Turing Test to an artificial intelligence Nathan has been constructed in secret. Once he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), so lifelike that she’s almost without fault, Caleb finds himself caught in a dangerous struggle between a machine desperate to survive and a man determined to be a god.
I decided early on not to watch any trailers or clips of ‘Ex Machina’ before I saw it, and I’m so glad I did. I've loved riding the recent wave of tremendous science fiction films, but ‘Ex Machina’ is probably the most exciting so far. Garland has made a spectacular debut as director, and also crafted arguably his most accomplished screenplay yet. This is a razor-sharp, unforgiving film, expertly executed and intricately constructed. By keeping the location fixed, the characters contained and the science fiction minimal, it makes it more of a psychological chamber piece, Caleb caught like an animal in a trap in a situation too full of moral conundrums for him to navigate himself through. Garland’s screenplay twists and turns with frightening ease, the complex ideas balanced out with the disturbingly casual dialogue. All three players in the game are as distinct and as dangerous as one another, from Nathan’s volatile narcissism to Ava’s frightening humanity. The film is also a spectacular technical achievement, like some kind of demonic offspring of Danny Boyle and Stanley Kubrick. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is clinical, cold and exacting, contrasting the slick interior of Nathan’s bunker with the wild fury of the mountains around it. The images are matched by Mark Day’s slick editing and Mark Digby’s gorgeous production design. The film just looks fantastic down to the smallest detail, and Garland demonstrates a spectacular eye for detail. The only thing that suggests that this is a first-time director is the uncompromising quality of the vision. What should feel like well-trodden ground (the ethical and moral questions around artificial intelligence) feels fresh and dangerous again in his hands, and excels most of all by making it a film about characters rather than ideas.
What really sells this though is the phenomenal casting. Domhnall Gleeson is continuing to prove himself as imposing an actor as his father, and his performance as Caleb might be his best yet. It’s a surprisingly physical performance, where every muscle he moves has meaning and danger. Caleb is our way into ‘Ex Machina’, and he makes the perfect everyman without ever becoming passive or expendable. Oscar Isaacs hits it out of the ballpark as Nathan, equal parts charming, hypnotic and unnerving. He lumbers through the film with primal force, the kind of performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat just because you can never anticipate where he will turn next. And completing the trio, and once again proving herself an exception talent, is Alicia Vikander as Ava. Visually, Ava is so clearly a machine, but Vikander has pulled off some kind of black magic in that she’s also the most human character in the film. This is a spectacular and subtle performance, and every moment she is on screen the film absolutely sings. The level of detail and intelligence she displays instantly places her as one of the greatest AI characters we've ever seen on screen.
Garland has made a spectacular debut as director, and also crafted arguably his most accomplished screenplay yet.
‘Ex Machina’ is a rare beast indeed, a film that pushes science fiction into new heights, challenges and questions its audience and still manages to be wildly entertaining at the same time. For his first film as director, Alex Garland sends us down a most dangerous rabbit hole, and I emerged bubbling with the kind of energy that only comes when I've seen truly great cinema. ‘Ex Machina’ is an instant science fiction classic, a rollercoaster for the mind and the body that holds you in a vice-like grip and only tightens at each twist and turn. When a film is this good, it’s best to strap yourself in for one hell of a ride.