Alex Garland's previous forays into sci-fi have resulted in the underrated (and less seen) Dredd, the underrated (and criminally underseen) Never Let Me Go and the underrated Sunshine. Is Ex Machina destined for the same fate? On the strength of Garland's directorial debut, we hope not.
Set in the future (it's never explicitly stated when), Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder for the world's biggest search engine and wins a competition to spend a week with the company’s reclusive owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his retreat in Alaska. Unbeknown to Caleb, he's there not just to spend time with Nathan, but to conduct a series of tests to prove if Nathan's latest creation - a robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander) - is the world's first artificial intelligence.
Whether it's Maria in Metropolis or more recently Samantha in Spike Jonze's Her, artificial intelligence has been a topic of discussion since film's early beginnings and, with Ex Machina, that's effectively what you get; one long discussion broken down into a series of conversations about the nature of humanity, conscience and whether A.I. can replicate, or indeed surpass, humanity.
It's thanks to Garland's script and the presence of the three leads in Gleeson, Isaacs and Vikander that Ex Machina doesn't bore in its more talky bits. While wholly speculative, the realism with which Garland treats his characters – both human and not so human - grounds the film making the heady, sci-fi concepts understandable without drowning in techno-babble.
It's a film with a dark tone but not ominously so, and while we’re loath to use the term 'sci-fi for adults' here, we will. This is the type of sci-fi we don't encounter too often and while that doesn’t catapult Ex Machina into the realms of great sci-fi it’s nonetheless interesting in its approach merely because it doesn’t view A.I. as threat which so many films of its ilk tend to default to.
Garland gradually doles out tension and intrigue, with ideas of voyeurism, obsession and reality giving the film a lingering creepy feel. Stylistically, it's stark and clean; the only idea of its futuristic setting save for Ava is just how clean everything is, and the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury brings a heavy amount of bass and otherworldliness to proceedings.
Through a combination of make-up and CG effects, Vikander's Ava looks like a Formula One engine trussed up in a human form. Amorous and sexual, Ava's every movement and vocal intonation is a mark of precision in Vikander's performance. Is she too good to be true? We won't say, but Vikander's doe-eyed presence gives Ava a soul, a ghost in the shell and one that's hard to ignore.
Isaac is similarly compelling. Isolated and smart, he’s a magnetic character but his aloofness and slippery traits mark him out as someone who doesn't engender the viewer's trust. Gleeson, a wide-eyed naïf in comparison to Nathan, acts as the audience's surrogate and for the most part his performance is one of a character who is never too sure of his bearings - unsure of which role he's playing in the dynamic between Nathan and Ava or the reason he's with Nathan which leads to him questioning his own reality. It's a fine trio of acting performances and the main reason you'll be buying a ticket to watch this film.
Ex Machina is the kind of science fiction tale that's been hard to find of late: a film that relies solely on its dialogue and ideas. While there's little wrong with spectacle and CG when done well, Ex Machina is a reminder that solid ideas and great performances can be just as entertaining.