Few sci-fi films in recent memory have successfully managed to evoke both a sense of dread and awe, while attempting to portray the extent of technological growth our generation has undergone. Throughout recent times science fiction has proved to be one of the toughest genres for any filmmaker to succeed in.
However, in the case of Ex Machina, a British independent passion project, what is made apparent is that bigger budgets do not necessarily mean greater quality filmmaking. Made on a budget of roughly fifteen million, the film’s tone, production design and sheer inventiveness make it stand out over many other, far more ‘’costly’’ projects.
Ex Machina tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a brilliant coder working for Bluebook, an extremely popular search engine. When Caleb wins a competition, he is invited to join the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his Alaskan estate. While there, he slowly learns the billionaire’s zeal to develop artificial intelligence to heights never before known to man. Only soon to be revealed, is Nathan’s unconventional, even sickening agenda.
The film marks novelist turned screenwriter, Alex Garland’s, directorial debut. Garland, whose previous work includes films such as the British mega-hit 28 Days Later and 2012’s severely underrated Dredd, presents what is without doubt his most accomplished screenplay to date.
It is a disturbingly plausible story, which carries heavy philosophical questions, but never crumbles under them. Instead, Ex Machina embraces these questions. It tentatively addresses debates like humanity vs. machine, the dangers of playing God, and what it means to have a consciousness. Garland not only manages to make these questions accessible, but also wraps them into what is a genuinely engrossing storyline.
Elevated by some dazzling cinematography by Rob Hardy, Ex Machina exudes consistent visual elegance, yet maintaining a sense of mystery within its tone. Its marvelous interiors, courtesy of production designer Mark Digby, each tell a unique story of their own, while also enhancing the film’s ever-growing claustrophobic nature.
Nevertheless, the true talking point about Ex Machina, lies in its central performances. Although a bit stiff and underwhelming at times, Domhnall Gleeson is solid as the film’s main protagonist. Oscar Isaac delivers an outstanding performance as Nathan. Portraying a character which other actors may have misinterpreted as nothing more than just another megalomaniac antagonist, Isaac achieves the feat of making him both likeable and terrifying, while humour largely underlies his performance; a performance which really blossoms in the film’s most subtle moments.
Despite this, Ex Machina’s standout performance undoubtedly belongs to Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Vikander plays Ava, Nathan’s artificial creation, who is to become the subject of a Turing Test, performed by Caleb. The Turing Test means to ‘’challenge a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence comparable to, or indistinguishable from that of humans.’’ What follows is an intricate series of ‘’tête–à–tête’’ sessions between Ava and Caleb, the pair conversing as Nathan sits in isolation elsewhere, observing their interactions. The pair’s conversations are fascinating, starting out simple, but quickly becoming loaded with intimation and heavy philosophical subtext.
Vikander is absolutely remarkable in the role, lending Ava an otherworldly quality that you can’t take your eyes off. Her performance also excels in the more physical aspects of her character, as Vikander manages to fully capture Ava’s stillness, and robotic movements. The humanity that Vikander encompasses in her role is what ensures that Ex Machina works, making it easy to forget that she is actually portraying a machine, and not the other way around.
A feature that is dialogue intense, the film depends heavily on its leading performers, all of whom certainly deliver. The screenplay features smart, sophisticated dialogue, something that epitomizes Garland’s evident interest in his subject matter. The persistent use of scientific terms when addressing artificial intelligence shows that this is written by someone who simultaneously understands, and is paying homage to what others could consider tricky material.
Credit should also go to Ben Salisbury’s and Geoff Barrow’s score, which goes purposefully unnoticed through the film’s first two acts. In the film’s third act, its chilling nature fully kicks in, elevating Ex Machina’s ambiance throughout those final scenes. It successfully accompanies all of the film’s plot twists, and contributes to what is an overall satisfying conclusion.
Where the film shines in its intellectual subtext, it suffers from obvious pacing issues. Some scenes lack the flow of others, and eventually end up running longer than necessary. What is more, throughout these scenes multiple of the film’s themes and thoughts are repeated way too many times.
Ex Machina is a genre-defining, cautionary tale, that’s essential viewing for anyone interested in where technology is taking us. Boosted by a duo of sumptuous performances, the film combines elements from sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, with unsettling, claustrophobic horror, in an attempt to exhibit its storyline’s plausibility. As for Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a stunning directorial debut, and yet it feels like the work of someone who has been honing their craft for decades. It is a thought-provoking thriller, with heavy aspects of psychological horror; an achievement that most directors can only dream of. Review by Victor Stasopoulos