Ex Machina Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac Universal Pictures
Rated R | 108 Minutes
Release Date: April 24, 2015
“Holding for memories, shifting for thoughts…”
Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a stylish and cerebral sci-fi thriller. Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, About Time) stars as Caleb Smith, a computer programmer who spends a week at the secluded mountain estate of Internet billionaire and reclusive genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).
Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has selected him to be the human component in a Turing Test on a humanoid artificial intelligence named ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander). Caleb must evaluate the android’s capabilities and determine if Ava possesses real emotional intelligence or if its consciousness is just a clever deception.
Robots have been a part of science fiction since the Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the term in 1921. From Metropolis to Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey to Her, the idea of artificial intelligence is ingrained into not only pop culture, but culture itself. As I write this, technology firms around the world are pushing the boundaries of science by developing humanoid robots with advanced artificial intelligence systems. What was once science fiction has become science fact.
In the near future of Ex Machina, Nathan Bateman has created the most sophisticated, emotionally intelligent robot yet. Were it not for her exposed wires and biomechanical organs, Ava would be unmistakable as human. She is the child of Maria and Hal, the ultimate Maschinenmensch – a creation so lifelike that Caleb immediately forms an emotional attachment with her.
But, does Ava feel the same way about Caleb? Or is she just pretending to like him? Who’s being tested in Nathan’s experiment? The robot or the human? Garland’s film asks some big questions about what it means to be human, and how human nature can often be as cold and calculating as a machine.
Science fiction used to be a genre that asked big questions, about who we are and where we’re going. Over the years, however, sci-fi films have asked less of us. Instead of intellectually engaging us, the majority of studio sci-fi films attempt to stagger us with spectacle. Technology has made it much easier to populate a science fiction film with realistic extraterrestrials and artificial lifeforms, but rarely do these films present big ideas in an intriguing way.
A handful of films in recent years – Minority Report, District 9, Moon, Inception, Snowpiercer, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – have captivated audiences with incredible visuals and cerebral stories. But even these modern sci-fi classics fail to stir the soul as much as Ex Machina.
Alex Garland has given us an impeccably crafted sci-fi drama that is as brilliant as it is beautiful. It’s incredibly rare to see a film in which every aspect of the craft — production design, cinematography, performance, direction, writing, editing, visual effects — is so polished and spot-on. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander deliver three of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Gleeson as the vulnerable but brilliant programmer; Isaac as the egocentric, somewhat sinister genius; and Vikander as a machine that is more human than human – a trio of great characters brought to life by great actors, telling a story that is filled with conflict and philosophical debates.
The maze these characters navigate is darkly gorgeous – an underground research station that blends Apple Store chic with earthy, organic elements. In many ways, Nathan’s mountain estate is the earthbound version of Icarus II, the spaceship from Garland’s Sunshine. At times the space is inviting, with serene surroundings and every modern convenience imaginable. At other times – like when unexpected power outages illuminate the corridors in red emergency lights – the facility becomes a scary place with doors that won’t open and phones that don’t work.
Garland deftly switches tones, leaving the viewer unsure of how he or she should feel. The film is thought-provoking and endearing while simultaneously unsettling and deeply disturbing. It’s often humorous, but you can never quite trust what you’re seeing. Garland keeps you at a distance, second-guessing the motives of all involved. It’s masterful filmmaking – spellbinding storytelling with a restrained and artful approach to special effects that enhances the story instead of distracting from it.
Ex Machina is the first must-see film of 2015. Fantastic performances, impressive visuals, and a story that has stuck with me weeks later, Garland’s directorial debut is often breathtaking and always intriguing. And that Oscar Issac is one hell of a dancer.