In Ex Machina, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young worker drone at Bluebook (think: fictional version of a naughty Google without the threat of reprisal lawsuits) who wins the opportunity to spend a week with his reclusive boss, billionaire eccentric genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote hi-tech home. But when Caleb gets there he finds he’s actually been selected for a completely different purpose – to help Nathan test a revolutionary new prototype artificial intelligence.
The standard way of determining whether an AI has truly achieved sentience is to administer the Turing Test, in essence a lengthy conversation with a human at the end of which the AI is deemed to have passed if the human cannot say with any degree of certainty whether they have been interacting with another real life person or a machine. That’s easier said than done however, and it’s soon clear that the test is in any case far too simplistic for Nathan’s requirements. What, then, can the two men come up with to determine whether or not Ava (Alicia Vikander) has genuine self-awareness or is just very good at mimicking and faking certain characteristics?
To say more would be to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, and I really don’t want to do that. At the same time, I don’t mean to suggest that it is a roller coaster ride full of dramatic twists and turns and surprises, because it’s not that kind of movie at all – there’s no deus lurking in the wings of this Ex Machina. This is a film that knows precisely where it’s going and what it’s doing at all times, as completely purposeful and under control as the clinical experiment it depicts. That’s not to say that the film’s impressive sense of growing claustrophobia and paranoia won’t have your mind racing and coming up with all kinds of wild alternative scenarios that are impossible to ignore – the same mind games similarly infect Caleb himself as the film goes on, to the point where neither we nor he are sure that anyone is who they say they are, even Caleb himself. However the film itself always knows where it’s going and there’s not a hair out of place as it makes its careful way through a complicated tale, to a finish that in hindsight is always its natural destination no matter how hard it is to be sure of that during the journey itself.
First and foremost, Ex Machina is a high concept science fiction story that is completely fascinated with the question of what sentience and self-awareness actually are, and how they manifest. Can we actually accurately recognise and diagnose them in other humans – or even ourselves – let alone come up with a test for the same traits in a computer? There were many times while watching the film that it provoked me into a few moments of thinking my own arguments and answers to the questions the film raised, and in the process I was occasionally distracted from the film itself by my own deliberations, but the fact that a movie can be this thought provoking is no complaint or criticism. Quite the contrary.
A science fiction film this ideas-led can often be off-puttingly cold, sterile and uninvolving, but fortunately the very nature of investigating AI is to tackle the fundamental question of what it is to be human, which means that it also needs an acute focus on character if it is to work. In pursuit of this, writer-director Alex Garland creates three terrific, fully-rounded and textured parts and then gets three of the best actors of the moment to play them, and the result is as superb as it sounds. Gleeson is terrific as the main point of audience identification who slowly starts to lose his grip on what’s real and what isn’t as he succumbs to the lies told him by his darkly dangerous and erratic boss, a bravura turn from Isaac. Ultimately both performances, brilliant as they are, are muscled aside by Vikander who imbues Ava’s robotic form with both subtle mechanistic touches and a wholly human vulnerability so that our own thoughts and reactions toward her change minute by minute as we learn more about her – and she about herself.
The film is very much a three-hander with only a handful of additional very brief and/or non-speaking roles in the 108-minute running time. The balance of power between the principals changes from scene to scene and often even pivots within the same scene, and at no time do you feel comfortable that anyone can be relied upon to tell the truth – or even that you can believe your own eyes. When the likeable Caleb starts to appear too gullible and naive to be true, it makes you wonder whether he is all that he seems to be or whether he might be the one being deceptive and pulling all the strings instead of Nathan, who is watching the events unfold from his Post-It strewn office via ubiquitous CCTV feeds from all over the compound that miss nothing, except during one of the annoying brief power outages that randomly afflict the state of the art complex. Or are these glitches actually as random as they appear?
The gripping, suffocating atmosphere is very well established by Garland’s clever and insightful script, which also manages to avoid being too po-faced by the inclusion of some nice moments of humour (a disco-dancing sequence is a stand-out.) However it’s Garland’s slow and careful direction that really seals it, together with his choice of gorgeous Norwegian locations and the stylish but icy interiors of Nathan’s eerily automated home – and of course there are the jaw-dropping FX used to bring Ava to life that are nothing short of spectacular. Also as important to the overall effect is Garland’s choice and use of a throbbing soundtrack that can turn from unobtrusive to deeply threatening in a heartbeat. You’d never think that this was Garland’s first time in charge of a film, but then he’s already got an unimpeachable cinematic pedigree: originally making his name as the author of the novel The Beach which was picked up and filmed by Danny Boyle in 2000, he continued his collaboration with Boyle by writing the scripts for the seminal 28 Days Later and the sadly underrated Sunshine before more recently scripting the film versions of Never Let Me Go and Dredd. He’s now chosen the ideal material with which to make his directorial début, with his own original story of Ex Machina exquisitely tailor-made to bring out the best in him as a director.
It’s the build-up of atmosphere and creeping sense of dread that Garland is so good at; by contrast, the very end of the film slightly loses its pacing and runs unnecessarily long when a quicker finish and tighter editing would have been even more effective. Don’t expect any big action sequences or moments of high drama here: even when things do start to kick off, there’s a gentleness to it and a unstated reluctance to get melodramatic that is quite striking and effective – the film is almost polite to a fault, which will mean it won’t be a huge success with the teen market wanting explosions and robot punch-ups who should instead stick to Michael Bay’s witless Transformers franchise. If I were to try and name a film with a similar feeling to this one then it I think it would have to be the terrific Moon that was similarly high-concept, and which also featured a limited cast working within a small setting. If you loved that film like I did, then you should find Ex Machina as brilliant if not even better. It’s a world away from the thuddingly poor Transcendence that tried and entirely failed to tackle some of the same sort of issues.
Perhaps the biggest commendation I can give this film is that I went to see it on the weekend of its release. I haven’t been to the cinema in almost exactly a full year since the disappointment (both as a film and as a film-going experience) that was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Ever since then I’ve been entirely happy to wait until films come out on DVD or Blu-ray and to see them in my own good time in the comfort of my own home, so the fact that Ex Machina made me get up and out to the picture house is quite a feat in its own right. That it didn’t then let me down and indeed managed to entirely deliver on my expectations speaks even louder.
Ex Machina is on general release in the UK and will open in the US on April 10 2015. The DVD and Blu-ray release in the UK is currently set for June 1, 2015.