Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s much anticipated debut behind the camera is an inventive sci-fi tale of the multifaceted dangers of technology’s rampant progress and the potential for our own annihilation at its expense. Ex Machina (2015) is a cerebral chamber piece, and conclusive proof that the genre requires little in the way of big budget effects if the central narrative is strong enough. And in this case, Garland’s screenplay provides more than ample food for thought.
The film opens with the briefest of set-ups: a medium-rung programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is shown winning a coveted prize to spend a week with his mysterious employer, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence. Flown by helicopter to a remote location, he learns from Nathan (Oscar Isaac) that he will participate in a Turing test on his latest creation, the alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day Caleb interacts with her in a new session designed to explore her consciousness through the degree to which she can process ideas and initiate independent thought. Caleb is naturally in awe of Nathan’s creation and of Ava as a wilful individual to whom he’s unable to remain neutral. But is there another, more decisive factor motivating Nathan and his decision to allow Caleb into his inner sanctum?
Gleeson, who was excellent in the recent Frank (2014), does a wonderful job of expressing Caleb’s awe and wonder combined with an instinct for the darker potentialities lurking in the margins. The fact that he pulls it off with a convincing American accent adds further merit to his performance. Isaac continues his impressive recent run, and though he’s never been the type of magnetic, commanding actor you might have picked for this role, his ease in adopting Nathan’s strangely laid-back demeanour is convincing enough. Vikander too shines in a role that requires subtlety to reflect the human spark of inspiration behind the robotic heart of her true identity.
In his skilful manipulation of this three-hander, Garland leaves the motivations of each open to speculation. As the week inside the sterile facility progresses, the layers of division are stripped away and re-built, leaving us blissfully unsure of who, ultimately, is holding the upper hand. The drama and intrigue build wonderfully to a gloriously ironic crescendo, in which Garland is able to fuse his narrative skills with a genuine cinematic flair, not so surprising from a writer who has collaborated so often with a director as boldly visual as Danny Boyle. The denouement is magnificent, coming after a memorable final set-piece in which the rug is very effectively pulled out from under us.