Having wrote the stories to some of his biggest hits, first-time director, Alex Garland, has spent a lot of time with the masterful Danny Boyle: working on such films as The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Now, writing and directing his feature debut, Garland proves that he has been paying attention and taking tips as he tackles a complex sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence.
Featuring Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, the stars of the upcoming Star Wars adventure, plus talented newcomer, Alicia Vikander – who stars in three films this month; Ex_Machina is quite well profuse.
Jumping right in, we are introduced to Caleb (Gleeson), a twenty-four year old coder who wins a chance to spend a week at his CEO bosses luxury house. Travelling for many hours over his private estate via helicopter, he arrives at a remote mountain villa. Where he meets Nathan (Isaac) – a prodigy programmer, who at the young age of thirteen created the foundations of Bluebook (our equivalent to Google and Apple combined). Now, middle-aged and extremely wealthy from his companies growing success, he lives a reclusive life at his custom-built smart house, which is insulated by intelligent automated features and billionaire gadgets.
Addressing the concept that life is different at this remote location – which is more of a research facility - Nathan invites Caleb to be part of an experience during his one week stay. An experiment that he classes as the greatest discovering of mankind; to test the world’s first artificial intelligence system, which is housed inside the body of a beautiful robot girl (Alicia Vikander).
Of course, the AI’ concept has been tackled many of times in contemporary film - most recently in Wally Pfister’s directorial-flop, Transcendence. In reality, the closest thing we have to it is Siri. Yet, Garland’s vision of AI is extraordinarily superior and physiologically mesmerising to witness.
For Domnhall Gleeson, the premise of his character is similar to that of his characters once played in Frank, or About Time – one that is thrown into a portal of unknown weirdness, and often out of his depth. Over the seven days of testing, Caleb must perform the scientific 'Turing test' on Nathan's AI’ system, nicknamed Ava; the idea of which is to deduce God-like theories and philosophical concepts – do robots feel a consciousness? If disguised, would you know it is a robot? Is it ethical?
It’s heavy material for Garland, but no stranger to psycho-thrillers, he explores futuristic concepts as if AI’s really do exist. Equally, the craft behind Ex_Machina is exceptional. A beautiful piano theme plays methodically, with often mix of silence setting the unique atmosphere. Whilst mainly set inside Nathan’s enclosed premise (with no windows), the camera work is mounted aesthetically.
Now, in her third film this month, Alicia Vikander shows that she is able to tackle any form of performance with extreme clause. Whether she is a young-women coming of age during World War One (Testament of Youth), a love-interest of a criminal (Son of A Gun), or now a robot, she is outstanding. Fluxed movements, and facial expressions through seamless CGI, she steals all scenes present.
Compressed into an impressive 1 hour 48 minute running time - considering the ground it has to cover for such a serious sci-fi drama, Ex_Machina, still manages to find time for sublime humour. Taut, fascinating and simply intriguing. Alex Garland’s debut film comes highly recommended.