Have we learned nothing from The Terminator, The Matrix, Blade Runner and 2001? Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac star in Ex Machina.
Director – Alex Garland
Screenplay – Alex Garland
Producer – Andrew Macdonald & Scott Rudin
Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer, has won a week with reclusive genius and tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded home in the mountains. Much to his delight, he discovers that he will be the human component in a “Turing Test”, a test designed to test a machine’s ability to exhibit artificial intelligence.
When he meets the test subject, Ava (Alicia Vikander), he’s at first struck with sheer awe by her abilities, but as the sessions with Ava continue, he discovers more and more unsettling truths than he bargained for.
It’d be an understatement to say the topic of the potential dangers in creating artificial intelligence has been done to death in film. Just this year alone, we’ve had Chappie last month, Avengers: Age of Ultron opens next week and the Terminator franchise opens later this summer. This is a premise that’s been covered numerous times from a variety of different tones, styles and story angles, so it all comes down to how its presented. Ex Machina rises above the pack thanks to writer/director Alex Garland’s strong writing, three superb performances and some first-rate production design.
The ideas presented may not be new, but Garland has put together a tense and intelligent sci-fi film, exploring the obligatory themes of morality, power and emotion through its uniquely drawn characters. Though extremely simple in both setting and character, the ethical dilemmas that arise and the way the characters handle them make for a riveting experience without the need for any big budget special effects or expertly choreographed action sequences.
That’s not to say this is a drab looking picture at all. Garland isn’t piling on the effects or action that are typically found in blockbuster sci-fi features, but Ex Machina is still a visually stunning film. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy bring out so much from one isolated setting, capturing a style that’s sleek and polished yet haunting and claustrophobic at the same time (the latter tones are also aided by a great score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow). Most of the CGI goes into Ava’s droid design (which owes some thanks to Spielberg’s A.I.), a beautiful mix of metallic mesh and bright, translucent body parts.
Blending the brains of Dennis Ritchie, the demeanor of Jeff Spicoli, the drinking problem of Ben Sanderson and donning the Coachella hipster starter kit, Oscar Isaac gives another reason why he’s one of the best, most quietly intense actors we have working today. Once you see him dancing the night away with his assistant on the dance floor, it becomes apparent that underneath his undeniable genius is someone that might be a little bit on the crazy side. Yet Isaac never takes this character over the edge, just one step away from it, and that’s part of what adds to this film’s tension. Every scene he’s in has you wondering if he’s gonna take that next step. Domhnall Gleeson (who’ll be re-teaming onscreen with Isaac later this Christmas in another very small, low budget sci-fi film you probably haven’t heard of), another star on the rise these past couple of years, brings equal parts confidence, assertiveness, curiosity and naivety to Caleb.
My first impression with Swedish actress Alicia Vikander wasn’t what you’d call the best, but you can’t really blame her; Seventh Son made nearly everyone involved look bad. However, she gets her chance for redemption here in a pitch-perfect, star-making turn as Ava. Vikander gives Ava such a graceful mystique (her extensive training as a ballerina is put to excellent use through her movements) it’s no wonder someone like Caleb could become so enamored by her. Vikander’s performance has the viewers enamored by her as well, melding her elegance with a cold vulnerability that wins over our sympathy almost instantly.
What’s most impressive is that this is screenwriter Garland’s directorial debut. He’s proven his skills as a writer already with 28 Days Later and the under-appreciated Sunshine (both directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle), and though I wasn’t exactly a fan of Dredd, it shouldn’t take me telling you to know that it was quite an improvement over the Sylvester Stallone crap-bomb. Just ’cause you’re a great writer, though, doesn’t mean it’ll automatically translate over to the director’s chair. We’ve seen others in the business, most recently cinematographer Wally Pfister (Transcendence) and special effects artist Robert Stromberg (Maleficent) make the leap last year, and though they’re great at their respective crafts, their debuts turned out to be bloated messes. Transitioning from screenwriter to director is a little easier considering both positions deal with story and narrative – the foundation of the film – but it’s still a whole new ball game. Working under a filmmaker like Boyle is definitely a plus, and you can see his influence throughout the film.
It’s not quite a home run. Sonoya Mizuno’s side character Kyoko has a predictable reveal in her arc about midway through the film. Still, it’s a bases clearing triple, which is pretty good if you ask me.
Ex Machina is a remarkable directing debut for Alex Garland that’s made even more remarkable by the three leading performances from Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander. Immaculately shot, tense and smartly written, this is a type of sci-fi which eschews grand effects for thought-provoking ideas, containing an underlying menace that may not rise above a slow simmer, but it’s all the more unsettling as the tension builds and builds at a slow burn pace that keeps us on edge just as much as the characters in the film are.
I give Ex Machina an A (★★★½).
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