A young programmer becomes part of an experiment to test if an android AI possesses consciousness.
Alex Garland is a name you should recognise. He first came to prominence at the age of just 26 when his first novel, The Beach, become an international sensation. It spawned a 2000 film by Danny Boyle which was a huge box office draw, kicking of a collaboration between Boyle and Garland which resulted in 28 Days Later and perhaps Boyle’s masterpiece, Sunshine.
Garland has also scripted the adaptation of Never Let Me Go and the viciously vivid Dredd. And now he’s set to conquer a new frontier with his first film as writer and director – Ex Machina.
I’ve long followed his career and Ex Machina is the logical next step for the 44 year old Englishman, especially after rumours of his heavy involvement with the filming of Dredd in 2012. It’s also a film which expands on his particularly brand of intense situations, bleeding edge tech and the wavering edges of fear.
Ex Machina is a sterling example of the sci-fi form, and a more distilled version that we’ve seen for many a year. With fairly conventional framing and filmmaking (certainly lacking the overbearing style Boyle would have brought to the piece) Garland sets up a quandary for the audience, and then explores it to the edge of rationality and reason, and then beyond.
After an extremely efficient opening we’re thrown into a world with only 3 main characters, trapped in an isolated location where events will unspool over the course of the week. These elements are no doubt partly concessions to the rather modest budget (around $20 million) but also make for a more compelling picture. There are no distractions, no cross-cutting to another group or extraneous action. It’s all laid bare.
It has to be said that Ex Machina is very much a talky film, it’s layered with deep and dense dialogue, centred on a series of engagements between the wide-eyed coder played by Domhnall Gleeson and Ava – a humanoid robot embodied by Alicia Vikander. There are thriller, mystery and even horror elements at play but the real action occurs in their exchanges, and the post-mortems with Gleeson’s mercurial boss Oscar Isaac.
The scale of the film means there’s a lot of pressure on these three performers and they’re truly terrific. Gleeson’s is the least showy role but he’s a perfect foil to both Isaac and Vikander – reflecting the audience thrust into this incredible set-up. It’s a part that becomes more complex as the film unfolds and he does a wonderful job selling each twist and turn.
Vikander and Isaac are at opposite ends of the spectrum here. She’s controlled and poised, with her former dance training lending Ava grace that’s laced with power. Garland has created a unique bot here – one that initially startles us with its incredible technology but that recedes as the film progresses, with the audience lured into seeing more and more the traits of consciousness, if not humanity.
Arguably its Isaac who has the hardest job here. He only has a handful of scenes but has to come off as charming yet antisocial, engaging but brutish and the kind of character who audiences will immediately distrust but never quite dislike. It’s a very careful and nuanced performance and overall an essential part of the three hander.
As with most of Garland’s screenplays, Ex Machina isn’t afraid to explore the darkest corners of its narrative and themes, and some viewers may find the places it goes to disturbing or even a tad lurid. It’s all a part of Garland’s visceral sense of style and these moments mostly work, especially as part of the wider tableau of the extremely effective ending.
It has to be said that Ex Machina treads fairly familiar sci-fi ground – the quest for consciousness, the rights to life of artificial intelligence, the potential passing of the human race – but it does so in a way that’s clever and prescient and finely crafted, all while remaining accessible and threading through enough genre elements that it should appeal to a wide-ranging audience. If the public responds, it could well be one of the biggest adult-only pics of the year, and it would be well deserved.