A young, talented programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to a secluded retreat where he is tasked to perform a modified Turing test on a robot that he has developed with A.I, a Turing test being a way to determine if a computer is indeed self aware. Through the course of a week though, the young man realises that he is only being drip-fed information and may be the part of some bigger game.
Starting life as a novelist, writing the book The Beach, later to be adapted by Danny Boyle, Alex Garland went on to be a film writer of note, working further with Boyle on such smart genre material as 28 Days Later and Sunshine before being hired on his own merits to produce scripts for further sci-fi outings both subtle and grand, such as the quiet Never Let Me Go and much more brash Dredd.
Taking that next logical step, Garland has been elevated to the director’s seat in his latest project Ex Machina (just for the record, it’s pronounced mac-in-ah, from the Latin), an intelligent sci-fi film which is both small and large in imagery and theme.
Sporting a core cast of three people and largely based in a single building, small would be the word you’d initially think about using when describing the film, the large visual elements being details of environment seemingly included to juxtapose this otherwise intimate affair, using outdoor scenes in the most beautiful natural landscapes as occasional bouts of relief from the elegantly designed yet clinically cloying indoor scenes.
This elegant design work extends throughout the whole film, adding an element of class to the proceedings that is immediately palpable. As a visual director, Garland has used this controlled setup to hit the ground running, understanding that in a world where TV shows such as Black Mirror can stand toe-to-toe with the smarts and emotional depth of any film, an identifiable stamp is what will separate Ex Machina from the pack; and the central robot of the narrative IS that stamp.
Excellently performed by Alicia Vikander, Ava, is a slickly designed component to the film that is as instantaneously identifiable as any Robocop or Terminator, only for the Apple/Android age, pulled off with such seamless integrated CG as to have you occasionally forget that you are watching a walking, talking FX shot.
The other core performances are equally impressive, with relative newcomer Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) sparing with man of the minute, Oscar Isaac, admirably, the latter weaving in elements of the sinister with a wonderfully subtle turn that somewhere along the way is transferred to an equally subtle Gleeson to create an atmosphere of palpable paranoia.
As a story it’s one of those where we’re only introduced to information as the lead character is, so are in the position of playing catch-up as much as he is, which works well for building intrigue and tension but risks bringing the whole film down if the reveals are uninspired or the conclusion weak, which as it happens, isn’t the case.
The previous comparison to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (a TV show you should be watching) is more apt than some would feel comfortable with, being that, when all’s said and done, the plot of Ex Machina is no more clever or emotionally engaging than most episodes of that show (Gleeson himself featuring in one of the episodes… concerning itself with a form of A.I no less). This does seem like more of an insult than it actually is though, as, currently, the best TV is at the very least comparable with the best films. It’s like saying a new gangster film is only as good as Boardwalk Empire, not quite the insult it seems considering how brilliant that show is; so, yes, while Black Mirror may be Ex Machina’s equal in all but budget it’s just a point of comparison, not contention.
Not quite as trailblazing as it might have been if released a few years ago, Ex Machina nonetheless is an engaging, intelligent and affecting science fiction film that is slickly realised enough to really draw attention to Alex Garland’s skills on this debut outing.