Alex Garland’s directorial début Ex Machina is something of a cinematic rarity; it is a science-fiction film which takes its time. Too many examples of the genre go in with all guns blazing, blinding the audience with CGI before trying to make some kind of philosophical idea that ends up making the whole film look a bit half-assed. Ex Machina hurdles these obstacles with total ease, presenting a cautionary tale that deals with very modern worries in a very human setting. Its special effects are minimalist but spectacular, its acting is consistently superb, and it demonstrates an intelligence and awareness that we don’t see that often in cinema. It is a very early 2015 science-fiction treat.
The story is simple and well contained: Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson), is a humble programmer who wins a competition to go and visit the reclusive home of his genius boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there he is enlisted to an experiment in which he is asked to spend time with Nathan’s latest creation, a beautiful robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine whether or not Nathan has truly created a free-thinking conciousness. It’s an engaging story, self-contained in this small penthouse in the middle of a huge, woodland clearing. They are completely alone out in this location, Caleb, Nathan and Ava, and their slow progression of relationships, and the breakdown of trust, is constantly making the audience switch their allegiances. Who can we trust? Is Nathan telling the truth about the test, or is he leading both Ava and Caleb along? Is Caleb keeping his judgement, or becoming untrustworthy by Ava’s almost flirtatious behaviour? And can pure, innocent Ava be as good as she seems, or does her intelligence also come with the capacity to deceive? The film doesn’t take sides, which makes it a constant challenge for the audience to decide whose side they are really on.
The film starts off as a futuristic relationship drama, which later evolves into an almost surrealistic horror film, where Alex Garland demonstrates his capacity to unnerve and disturb the viewers. This often comes from Ava, wonderfully played by Alicia Vikander, who is incredibly human despite half of her body being exposed, wires and lights blinking and moving when she does. The very idea that we have this clearly mechanical figure, that acts so perfectly, so humanely, is disturbing in itself. She’s a wonderful creation, with perfect use of CGI making her not just believable, but totally natural to the setting. Vikander herself has been trained in dancing, and it shows through her performance; Ava moves with a meticulous and deliberate grace, almost gliding across floors when walking. She is the focus of the story, and always the focus of the audience; she is consistently the most engaging and interesting character, as we, like Caleb, strive to find out the limits of her humanity.
That isn’t to say that the other characters aren’t interesting. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is a well formed character, an outsider coming into a location that seems out of time, where miracles are created but secrets are kept. Gleeson plays him well, and just like he did in last year’s Frank, he isn’t fearful of the audience not liking him. However, he often takes a back seat to Oscar Isaac’s mad scientist Nathan, a lazy drunk who almost seems to be in control of all the information the world has to offer. He’s a genius, but a recluse, untrustworthy, with a nasty streak which occasionally reminds us and the other characters of a darker nature. Isaac plays him so well, giving us a completely different form of ‘mad scientist’, a drunk genius who, even at his kindest moments, is nothing less than quietly sinister. It’s this three-way character drama that really keeps the story going, and makes the whole film work as well as it does; the intelligence of the script is only heightened by the actors portrayals of three complicated, deep characters. This is hugely impressive stuff from first time director Alex Garland, a directorial science fiction début that rivals the likes of Duncan Jones’ Moon, and bodes very well for the future. It’s confidently made, recycling old ideas with a new presentation, getting excellent performances out of a small cast and posing the audience with relevant questions for today. Science fiction cinema in 2015 could not have gotten off to a better start.
The individual one on one sessions with Caleb and Ava are brilliantly engaging, as the audience is studying her and her responses just as much as Caleb is. She’s an inherently fascinating creation of a character, and every second spent in her company is totally compelling.
Halfway through Ex Machina I had the realisation that the film wasn’t offering anything totally new for the genre. These are good ideas, but well worn ones, and perhaps a few new questions would have kept things a bit more fresh. However, this is barely a criticism when the presentation of old ideas is told in such a wonderfully new, unique manner.
Alex Garland’s first ever effort at directing is a complete triumph, giving us one of the best British science fiction films in years, and reminding cinema just how intelligent and thought-provoking the medium can really be. It isn’t perfect, but it is a beautifully presented, fantastically acted example of the genre, and a real treat for science-fiction fans. It doesn’t get ahead of itself, it takes its time, and it wants to make the audience think. An all too rare example of cautious, minimalist science-fiction cinema.