Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.
With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.
The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).
Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.
Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.
And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.
As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.
And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.
All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.
So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.