There’s a chance that Ex Machina could have passed me by – another science fiction film about artificial intelligence. What made me near enough hurl myself into the cinema seat was when I saw the film’s poster, which said, “Written and directed by Alex Garland.” If you’ve never heard of Garland, he’s an author and screenwriter, responsible for – in my opinion – one of the best films to ever come out of the UK, 28 Days Later, as well as writing screenplays for Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd. To say Garland is talented is like saying the Arctic is a bit nippy.
The very best science fiction should make you think; not just about your life, but what it means to be alive. That’s not a rule written in stone, but it’s how I separate decent, watchable sci-fi from classic science fiction. Garland’s directorial debut falls into the latter.
Ex Machina will get you thinking, but its complexity has a sting in its tail. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan creates Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) mind, her thoughts, her interactions using popular results from Internet search engines, as well as hacking into the cameras and microphones of every phone on the planet. There are warning signs going off right there! When security agencies such as GCHQ are making the headlines, tracking our Google searches and social media interaction, you have to wonder how much of a personal profile are they building of you when you go online? Also, is a person ever really themselves when they talk down the phone to someone or have a conversation via Skype? This is only a couple of the many questions that Garland fires at you during Ex Machina’s hundred-odd minutes.
Garland’s scriptwriting tends to be claustrophobic, with only a small cast, and his latest work does not buck this trend. You have three characters here: Isaac’s egotistical, playing God, computer genius; Domhnall Gleeson’s shy, careful not to offend, gentle coder, Caleb; and Vikander’s machine, unnervingly swapping from compassionate to aloof with no warning, suggesting there is much more going on behind those eyes. For most of Ex Machina, you have mind games and paranoia going on between the three of them, wondering what the other person knows, all keeping closely guarded secrets. From the first time you meet Nathan you know he’s playing a game with Caleb, you’re just trying to work out what he’s up to. Ava, for the most part, is caring and innocent, a damsel needed rescuing from a glass box instead of a tower, until she turns the tables on Caleb, interrogating him, firing question after question like a computer might do in an online exam. You quickly realise Ava is not as childlike as she seems. Caught in the middle of it all is Gleeson’s Caleb. He’s attracted to Ava the second he meets her – Double Negative’s CGI is subtle and gorgeous to look at, Vikander’s torso a collection of tangled gold wiring encased in gel, her brain visible from the back of her head, giving a gentle blue glow, while Vikander herself is striking in an angelic, otherworldly sense – refusing to listen to Nathan’s warnings that Ava has the ability to flirt and seduce, instead trying to help her escape when she tells him Nathan is not to be trusted.
While Ex Machina is playing the three characters off against each other, it is tense, uncomfortable and wickedly clever. It’s not spoiling anything by saying that the last twenty minutes is standard monster-on-the-loose science fiction (the trailer gives this away) which, while entertaining, is nowhere near as satisfying. Alex Garland doesn’t ruin things, you just wish the whole film was never-saw-that-coming inventive and constantly had you thinking. This is a tiny flaw that can easily be forgiven. Ex Machina is old-school science fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov’s novels; it’s seductive, sinister, and thought-provoking, as well as being surprisingly feminist. Plus, any film that can throw in some spontaneous disco dancing to Oliver Cheatham’s Get Down Saturday Night gets huge thumbs up from me.
5 out of 5