Arriving with comparatively little fanfare in an admittedly busy season, Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is a sci-fi anomaly among the prestigious contenders for your attention this January. A novelist who, since the turn of the century has focused more of his energies on screenplay duties, this is his debut behind the camera and it’s an assured first outing, shrewdly tailored to a modest scale yet busy enough with ideas to appear bigger than it is. There are only a handful of actors and essentially one location, yet much like Duncan Jones’ Moon, Garland uses these restrictions to his advantage, crafting his film carefully, like a ship in a bottle.
Set in a not-too-distance future it sees programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) picked at random to take part in an experiment being conducted by his reclusive boss, Bluebook search engine CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Whisked by chopper to Nathan’s mountain retreat, Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s self-produced scientific breakthrough; a robot with, he hopes, the most comprehensively developed artificial intelligence ever created. Over the course of a week Caleb is to ascertain whether she is truly faultless in design, in the process signing away his privacy and having to contend with not just Ava’s cool curiosity, but Nathan’s idiosyncratic changes in character. Also present is Nathan’s apparent housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who speaks no English and so can divulge no secrets.
Nathan’s prowess as a designer immediately raises a question that hangs over the film, skewing dynamics from scene to scene; if Ava can be made to appear human, then is she the only fraudulent player in this foursome? Garland knowingly plays this as his hold card, and as Caleb inevitably grows attached to Ava’s innocent and inquisitive personality, the conundrum of what constitutes awareness of self is like an itch waiting to be scratched. At its most paranoid, Ex Machina sees Caleb starting to wonder about himself. Thanks to the film’s measured pace, eager viewers will have started asking this long before he does. And what of Nathan? Garland assumes we’re suspicious. Might Nathan’s exaggerated quirks and largess be a fake-out in itself? Is anyone here who they appear to be?
By the end of the film these questions are conclusively answered, but Garland has fun turning the screws along the way. During a power cut Ava uses the gap in surveillance to warn Caleb not to trust Nathan. Quite who is the test subject and who is the observer starts to become a slippery proposition. There’s a lot of talk here of rats in mazes. Garland makes the viewer one, though the route to the finish line isn’t wholly as tricky as one might expect.
With such a confined setting – a minimalist bunker-like house carved into some pretty impressive scenery – the performances here come under the microscope. Assisted by some beautiful and seamless visual effects, Vikander’s work as Ava is impressive. Moving with the deliberate poise of a trained dancer, always restrained and precise, Vikander sells Ava as an icy quandary; mechanical yet soulful. Like a child old beyond her years, she is an endearing presence; quite the contrast to Isaac’s ramshackle, scraggy-bearded Nathan. The film’s modest and talky opening stretch sets off alarm bells when it comes to Isaac. After some notable work in the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis, his Nathan initially appears off-kilter. Too cartoonish. Too colourful. Yet as the film progresses – and it gets better as it goes along – his oddness becomes a necessity. Once you grow accustom to him, it’s clear Isaac is doing some good work here.
Striking in quite a different manner is Mizuno. Kyoko is the film’s wild card early on. Limited by what she can express, her character is the most enigmatic, and she manages an awful lot with very little. This leaves Gleeson, frequently cast as the rather vanilla every man. Ex Machina does nothing to change this trend. And while it would be nice to see him tested with more stretching material, he serves the character of Caleb well. This strange situation requires some semblance of normality, and Caleb is our moral compass through the story. His eyes are ours. His discoveries ours.
What makes us human isn’t the sole question on the table. Gender roles make up a key part of Garland’s conversation here, and the dynamic between Nathan and Ava – and Caleb and Ava – present us reflections on the subjugation of women and the exploitation of their sexuality throughout history, suggesting grimly that the future may continue these trends even into the realms of A.I.. The more we learn about the reclusive Nathan, for instance, the more disquieting his psychological make-up becomes. The ending, however, offers up a considerable price for such behaviour.
Garland finds a way to bring this potent situation to a dramatic conclusion, though throughout there’s a nagging sense of déjà vu; that in some shape or form we’ve been down these roads before, most likely in some half-forgotten Star Trek episode; a show that Nathan fondly references. And while there’s plenty on screen to capture the audience, Garland’s debut plays it relatively safe. Little about Ex Machina suggests a new cinematic auteur has entered the arena; rather this is a solid production that focuses on the story rather than technical fireworks. Commendable, if not thrilling.
The score below then is a positive one. This is an above average, thoughtful piece of big screen science fiction that plays on ideas rather than pyrotechnics, and more in that vein will always be welcome. As a total aside, I sat in the dark in a semi-busy screening of this. For a spell the person sat to my right appeared, in the gloom, to be giving her date a ‘helping hand’ underneath a coat. I tried my very best not to let this distract me. Hell, I tried my very best to block this out completely. However from the little I could tell, the film scored higher than the handjob.