Alex Garland’s previous efforts as a writer have often explored some very human questions, packaged with extraordinary science fiction events, be that the problem of altruism and cowardice during a zombie apocalypse in 2002’s 28 Days Later or what to say in your last message to your family before a spaceship’s inexorable plunge into the heat of a star in 2007’s Sunshine. His first film as a director, Ex Machina, takes a similar tack in that it asks us to consider if a man-made intelligence could ever be truly conscious, and if it can, is that ever going to be a good thing?
However, unlike flesh eating rage-beasts or the madness of outer space, the problem at the heart of Ex Machina is relatively close to home – the point at which AI catches up with, and maybe even overtakes, the human race. The creation of such a being may be the closest mankind comes to being God, but we can never know what will come from such a machine, portrayed here as the explicitly female (another question, of whether AI will have any use for gender, is explored deftly) Ava (Alicia Vikander).
She lives a lonely existence in a secluded glass and metal fortress, both a research lab and a prison. When we first meet her, she’s never met anyone from the outside world before, her life changing with the introduction of a fresh face to the hyper-stylised compound.
This new arrival, acting as both the eyes of the audience and possibly something more sinister, is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), invited to stay at this ultramodern palace by tech mogul and CEO of the company he works for, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who will star alongside Gleeson later this year in the new Star Wars). So begins an incredibly tense three-being game of cat and mouse, as each side tries to work out the other’s motivations and secrets. With an impressive physicality, shaved head and isolationist beard, Nathan appears to be in control, but his creation, with the help of Caleb, threatens to usurp him.
The star of the show here is absolutely Vikander. Every move she makes is calculated and graceful, a ballerina crossed with a caged tiger, and she strikes a fine balance between robotic detachment, childish wonder, and a very human sense of sexuality and subversiveness. There’s a danger beneath her sleek, beautifully designed, veneer and this, combined with Caleb’s empathy and Nathan’s desire for control make for a Hitchcockian triangle at the film’s centre, with Garland using the repeated image of fog to very effectively heighten the tension. Mimicking the closed-off settings that defined many of the Master of Suspense’s films, Ex Machina never feels too far in action from an old-school thriller, even though the effects and plot could hardly be more current. Garland also proves his understanding that his transferral from the writers’ room to the director’s chair requires a whole new set of skills, with some simple but highly effective visual storytelling, such as the illustrations of the balance of power within the compound.
He also uses Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s masterfully disconcerting score to great effect, the synthy soundscapes accentuating the alienating, distant, and cold atmosphere so well cultivated by the rest of the film. This is not a film that needs bombast to make an impact, with quiet dialogues and off-screen tensions more than enough to keep you engaged throughout.
Ex Machina is the much needed antithesis to other, lesser, artificial intelligence movies, most recently Johnny Depp’s giant flop Transcendence, and Garland as both writer and director navigates through it very confidently. He asks tough, increasingly relevant questions, whilst never losing sight of the thrills needed to sell this kind of film. It would be easy to merely label the film as a modern-day Frankenstein, but Ex Machina is a different beast. Its moral questions hit home harder with the knowledge that we may soon be having to ask them ourselves. An incredibly accomplished directorial debut that does far too much too well to be simply called ‘promising’, Garland shows off a unique sci-fi vision, believable, intelligent, and inhabited by very memorable characters.