Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson
Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that sci-fi doesn’t need to be a blockbuster space opera, or a young adult dystopia. For his first time in the director’s chair, screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) brings us a stunningly beautiful glimpse into the near future, and the birth of artificial intelligence with this smart and contained piece.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won the lottery: a personal meeting with one of his idols, reclusive tech genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). At his secluded retreat Nathan offers the young programmer the chance of a lifetime, to carry out a series of tests on Nathan’s latest project in an attempt to prove he has created an artificial intelligence. Caleb is shocked to discover that this AI is in the form of an android woman called Ava (Alicia Vikander), a shock which increases when she warns Caleb not to trust her creator’s intentions.
Ex Machina plants itself in fertile ground for story-telling, full of the mythic potential of such tales as Frankenstein, Pygmalion, or even Eden (or more recently Her, Chappie, and – shudder – Transcendence). Posing the questions of what constitutes humanity, what separates us from our creation, and what rights do they have? It is speculative sci-fi, lovingly handled with care and subtlety. No space battles or alien invasions; rather Ex Machina uses its special effects to create a completely believable reality for a contemplative but tense thriller. The result is immersion in a future that could be only a heartbeat away.
At the core this is a three hander (despite the presence of Sonoya Mizuno as the silently attentive servant, Kyoko) pitting creator against creation. It is a battle of wits through the proxy of a naive intermediary. As Caleb struggles to understand his role, and his place in the testing process, he grows more uncertain of the nature of his feelings for both participants.
Oscar Isaac is magnificent as the off-putting genius Nathan. Not all his intelligence, or deliberately disruptive alpha dog behaviour, can hide his drunken insecurities. Each exchange keeps you guessing as to his true motives and desires. On the other side of the glass cage is Alicia Vikander as Ava, played as an open and somewhat innocent presence but possessed of poise, intelligence and self confidence. As the film progresses she becomes as much an enigma as her creator when it comes to her wants and capabilities. Caught between these two is Gleeson’s Caleb, our introduction into this conflict, soft hearted and distrustful, but quietly intelligent.
Lovingly crafted and perfectly realised, this is an instant sci-fi classic. Smarter than a positronic brain and sleeker than a Cylon raider, Ex Machina is a worthwhile addition to your data banks.