For those following the career of Alex Garland closely there will be a sense of dread (pun intended) about seeing Ex Machina. Not dread for fear of it being bad but the worry that, given his track record, he may get in your head and rearrange the existential furniture. This is, after all, the man who gave us The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and most notably Never Let Me Go. Because Garland is a writer, until now with this being his directorial debut, who doesn’t just want to engage his audience, he wants to challenge them.
So when Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives at reclusive, tech billionaire Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) remote home come research facility you’re already well prepped to expect the unexpected. Having won a company lottery to join his loner boss for the week Caleb soon learns he is there primarily to conduct a Turing Test (yes the same Turing Mr. Cumberbatch recently portrayed). The subject of the test will be to see if Caleb can establish whether or not Nathan’s latest invention Ava (Alicia Vikander), has artificial intelligence to the level that she could pass for human. The twist: Caleb is always fully aware that she is not human.
From it’s opening Ex Machina is a wonderful concoction of a think-piece, science fiction, head scratcher combined with a battle of wits comparable with something along the lines of Sleuth. Because it isn’t just Caleb vs. Nathan, or Caleb vs. Ava, instead Garland almost wants you to pick a side and then decide who is playing whom.
And therein lies Ex Machina’s brilliance. That while Ava and Caleb are getting in each other’s heads and Nathan thinks he’s pulling the strings to it all, it is Garland making camp in our psyche. Demanding we address what qualities make a person ‘human’ or rather what makes us think we’re human? In one scene Caleb looks in the mirror having recently had his mind blown and begins to question his own reality, it’s the kind of moment one can easily find themselves having while their mind wonders in a mundane task such as brushing your teeth.
On the surface Nathan is the least likeable character, Isaac giving him a level of hubris far beyond Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. He’s a hard drinking man driven by his ego and determination. Caleb on the other hand is shy, not wanting to upset his boss too much but always aware he is there to perform a very specific task. Gleeson, fast becoming one of cinemas dependably shy leading men, gives Caleb a sense of self-doubt but is never a shrinking violet, like us you feel his brain constantly ticking, assessing the situation from every angle.
But the real eye opening come brain popper is Vikander’s Ava. With the aid of some wonderfully understated but perfectly executed special effects she is a revelation throughout. Vikander manages to juggle character traits with ease, one minute child-like innocence the next staggering intellect with just a hint of alluring mannerisms to keep Caleb firmly hooked on her every move. It’s a wonderfully hypnotic performance underlined with a sense of unease as to whether or not she is as pure as she likes to portray.
As directorial debuts go Ex Machina is stunning from Garland. Mixing the Thunderbird hide-out décor of the house, all concrete slabs and modern frosted glass doors, with the earthy nature of the stunning vistas of the surrounding area it’s impossible not to be seduced into this world. From the get go Garland imbues the film with a sense of unease, at no point does he want us to feel comfortable and as such we enter Nathan’s house, like Caleb, with our nerves triggered to potential danger. If there is a flaw to be levied it’s that at times the secrecy of the plotting, that desire to keep you guessing, means there is not always the level of emotional investment you might want but Garland’s casting goes a long way to rectifying that.
A cerebral, tense and thoroughly thought provoking science fiction film, if there is a Deus (God) in this Ex Machina it is Garland himself.