Starring: Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), Oscar Isaac (Drive), Sonoya Mizuno
Writer/Director: Alex Garland (28 Days Later)
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Release Date: 21 January (UK), 10 April (US)
Alex Garland has had his hands in many of the great genre films of the past decade or so. With screenwriting credits like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, it’s surprising that it’s taken him this long to jump into directing. His freshman effort is Ex Machina, which explores the subject of artificial intelligence and the many questions we’ve asked about it over the years. It’s a topic that’s been done many times before, but it hasn’t been done by Alex Garland, and the result is (much like 28 Days Later) something familiar but also different in all the right ways.
Though a moody and often slow picture, Ex Machina never wastes your time for a second. It throws you straight into the plot and gets across all necessary information through natural story progression and imagery rather than a text dump that says “this is the future and there are robots and stuff.” From there, the story unfolds slowly but intriguingly, putting you in the mindset of protagonist Caleb (Gleeson) and making you question every plot turn. Ex Machina also does a great job of throwing you the unexpected; it never gives you the obvious answer even when it seems like it’s going to. This teasing and the atmosphere create a story that feels easy to predict but isn’t, and that kind of playfulness just makes the twists the story takes that much more impactful. The film explores many of the key questions about the nature of AI that have been explored before, but it does so cleanly and without too much technobabble (even Nathan (Isaac) has to keep reminding Caleb to stop speaking in technical terms). But just because a film is ponderous doesn’t mean it can’t have a heart, and Ex Machina never gets too serious for it to become emotionless. The relief is sporadic, but among these moments include Ghostbusters references and a disco dance number; I’ll let you ponder how those fit in.
The cast of the film is small but excellent, allowing for both more time to be spent with these characters and the actors to develop them. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is a typical but likable protagonist, who’s smart enough to be proactive but no so smart that it’s unbelievable. He’s flawed and human, making more mistakes than the average main character would but in a way that is completely relatable given his circumstances. Oscar Isaac gives a subdued but powerful turn as Nathan, yet another example of cinema’s recent obsession with making Steve Jobs-like figures the antagonist. But Nathan isn’t your typical threat in any way, as not only does he act completely friendly throughout most of the film but, in many ways, he is completely justified in his actions. He’s not exactly a totally sound human being, but there is logic to his methods and you can sympathize with his frustrations. But it’s Alicia Vikander as Ava that is the real star of the film. Giving arguably the best performance of an AI character since Alan Tudyk in I, Robot, Vikander balances that fine line between believable and artificial to create a convincingly inhuman character. A lot of that syntheticness comes through her eyes, which manage to give that “uncanny valley” effect you often see in CG characters but for real. Her blank, ethereal face often creates something of a Kuleshov effect; are we actually reading an emotion on her face or are we just reading one reflecting from Gleeson’s face? There’s a real depth to the performance that I can’t go much more into without delving into spoilers, but it’s certainly a major standout in a film that has many standout elements.
Ex Machina serves as great example of how to do sci-fi on a limited budget. Based on the small cast and enclosed location, it’s clear that there wasn’t too much money to throw around but they’ve spent it in all the right places. The set of Nathan’s house is futuristic but simple, creating for a believable environment but one still slightly otherworldly. The cinematography is simple but effective, with slow camera moves and cool colour pallete that add to the threatening ambience of the picture, whilst the music is minimal and oozes in at just the right moments. But once again it’s Ava who steals the show with her fascinating design and the effects implemented on Vikander to make it happen. I’m sure a lot of it is through green screen and rotoscoping, but it’s still very hard to see the seams in the illusion. It’s a very impressive effect and clearly where the money went on this film (and deservedly so).
I cannot recommend Ex Machina enough. It’s a tightly told, intriguing and bold film that does everything a great sci-fi film needs to do. It’s a grand idea done with simple methods, and serves a solid template for how the British film industry should handle genre pictures. Gleeson and Isaac put in solid performances, but really you’ll just be waiting for Alicia Vikander to appear on screen again. If you love sci-fi stories that keep you guessing and don’t give simple answers, then this is certainly one for you.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10