Alex Garland has had the kind of career some of us only dream of. A successful debut novel, The Beach; a creative partnership writing for one of the best British directors, Danny Boyle; and now he’s directed his first feature film. Until I can figure out which infernal entity he made a deal with, I am content to see if Ex Machina fulfills on its promise of slick and introspective science fiction.
Young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to visit the home/workshop of his boss, reclusive genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he gets there, however, Nathan has a very particular job for Caleb: to have a series of conversations with a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to test whether she has full artificial consciousness. As Caleb talks with Ava, the relationship growing between the two makes him wonder who–and what–he can trust.
Robots and questions of humanity have always been a popular topic in cinema. From Maria in Metropolis to the Replicants of Blade Runner, artificial intelligence has blurred the lines between scientific fact and science fiction, particularly in more recent times. Alex Garland’s approach to the topic is one of a small, insular drama between the three characters rather than any kind of global catastrophe or event. It’s something that could very easily fall apart without three very strong leads, and luckily here are three of the best in recent years.
Gleeson manages a level of everyman that doesn’t dip too far into naiveté, and Isaac’s alpha-male affability with an edge of sleaze makes him quite creepy at times (one word: disco). I enjoyed both of them very much, but Vikander stole the show completely. When we meet Ava in the first of the series of “conversation sessions,” she is sweet, if a little stiff in a way that we would expect from a robot character. As the film progresses and we see new sides to her, we (much like Caleb) are never sure of her motives. Is she genuine in her friendliness? Is she trying to manipulate him for her own goals? Is her behaviour pre-programmed by Nathan to mess with Caleb? We’re not quite certain.
Vikander’s performance is also one of little subtle moments that I really liked. A certain posture in one scene, a way of tilting her head in another, and in one scene where she dresses in clothes, she plays with her sleeve for a quick moment in a way that is charmingly human. Vikander is a very interesting emerging talent and I look forward to seeing her future projects.
Towards the end of the film, another layer to Nathan’s work is revealed. We see some of Ava’s predecessors, all in different states of construction, but also all somewhat objectified in their form of all being naked woman (or parts of them anyway). It’s sinister without going into full-on exploitation, and along with a discussion between Caleb and Nathan about giving robots gender, brings an undercurrent of gender politics to what is already a strong science fiction piece. I think that Garland really has something as a director, and between the performances, the visual style to the film and the tightness of the pacing, it is one of the strongest directorial debuts I’ve seen for some time.
Intellectual and accessible, thrilling and contemplative and all wrapped up in a package of great performances, Ex Machina is an example of what interesting modern science fiction should be and is an early strong runner for one of the best films of the year.