This is a reprint of our review that ran in January for the U.K. release of the film.
After giving new life to the zombie and space opera genres with the Danny Boyle-directed duo of “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” and devastatingly adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” for Mark Romanek, it seemed inevitable that screenwriter Alex Garland would eventually find his way into the director’s chair (especially after those rumors that he took over from credited helmer Pete Travis in the editing room of “Dredd,” which he also wrote).
What was less inevitable is that Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” would be any good. If the film fell flat, he’d be far from the first scribe to unsuccessfully attempt directing. As such, it’s extremely pleasurable to report that the picture is a triumph. It’s arguably Garland’s tightest and most fascinating screenplay to date, brought to life with meticulous filmmaking and sensational performances. It’s the first great film of 2015.
Like his earlier work, which gave a fresh coat of paint to the undead, the space-flight-to-save-mankind, clones and future-cops, “Ex Machina” takes a familiar central concept of artificial intelligence and makes it new. We find Caleb (Domhnall, Gleeson), a relatively low-ranking programmer at Bluebook, the world’s biggest internet search engine, as he wins an in-company competition for the prize of a lifetime, the opportunity to fly to the remote Alaskan estate of founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and spend a week with the reclusive genius (who wrote the code behind his golden goose when he was only 13).
When Caleb arrives, he swiftly finds out that he’s not just there for a vacation. Nathan has created an A.I., a machine housed in the body of Ava (Alicia Vikander), who has a beautiful face and a partly translucent shell housing her metal innards. Nathan wants Caleb to give Ava the Turing Test, the ultimate exam for artificial intelligence (named for Alan Turing, the protagonist of “The Imitation Game”), to see if it’s indistinguishable from a human.
Garland rattles through the pre-amble in five minutes, putting Caleb in Nathan’s gorgeous modernist hideaway almost as soon as you’ve settled into your seat. He then gets to the meat of the film: a terse, tense three-hander structured around Caleb and Ava’s seven "sessions" and the programmer’s nighttime hangouts with his mysterious benefactor.
If it seems like I’m dancing around the plot, it’s because I am. “Ex Machina” is the kind of film that works best if you go in knowing almost nothing. It’s the rare film where you’re not quite sure what the next scene will involve. Garland deliberately throws you for a loop every so often (most memorably in a brilliantly incongruous dance sequence), and keeps the motivations of his characters opaque but never oblique.
Every so often, you become concerned that the narrative’s going to end up in a dead end (after all, his two scripts for Boyle went off the rails in the third act), and Garland even seems to bait you to think as much in places, but the storytelling’s controlled and satisfying throughout. Above and beyond, this is a film of big ideas, elevated from what could be a theatrical chamber piece by the rigorous manner in which it delves into the question of artificial intelligence and the singularity, leaving you picking over its issues well after the credits roll, while also never feeling like you’re sitting through a TED talk.
It might be his finest work as a writer so far, but Garland also suggests that he’s no slouch behind the camera either. He mostly avoids first-time-helmer showiness (beyond a few misjudged, distracting computer-eye-view shots) in favor of a rigorous, meticulous command of mood and atmosphere that’s reminiscent of David Fincher, leaving you consistently unsettled.
His use of space is particularly interesting. The wild Alaskan landscape (actually shot in Norway) adds some thematic scope to the film without reducing the claustrophobia, while Nathan’s hideaway/research lab, a truly remarkable piece of production design by Mark Digby, functions as both an extension of Isaac’s character and a character all of its own. Garland knows exactly where to put his actors in this environment and how to shoot them — watch carefully during the Ava and Caleb scenes to see who’s really being examined. In fact, the film’s technically excellent throughout, from sharp cutting by Mark Day and gorgeous photography by rising star Rob Hardy (“Tracks”) to a throbbing, ominous score by newcomer Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow.
Given that it’s mostly a three-hander (albeit aided by a vital contribution by impressive newcomer Sonoya Mizuno), this film lives and dies on its actors, and Garland couldn’t have assembled a better trio. Once again, Gleeson demonstrates that there are few actors right now who play the everyman-with-an-edge better than he can, while Vikander soars again. Ava owes something to cinematic robots as far back as Maria from “Metropolis,” but stands as a distinct creation, switching on a dime from childlike pathos to femme fatale seductress to manic pixie dream girl.
The stand-out of the three is Isaac. Anyone who’s been following the actor will hardly be surprised, given that he’s been steadily cementing his status as one of the best working actors over the last couple of years. Isaac gives a well-written character many extra layers of texture. He’s clearly an overgrown, overcompensating nerd-child who ended up with the money and talent to build the life he dreamed. Isaac brings unexpected and welcome notes of humor, condescension, and petulance to the role, while still hinting that there might be something more disturbing about Nathan not far from the surface.
When he’s onscreen, its clear that the film is a reinvention of the Frankenstein story, a portrait of man’s hubris and desire to play god. But it’s also more than that: an all-too-realistic glimpse of the future, a tense thriller about the impossibility of knowing individual motivation and a wrenching picture of the terrible things that men do to women. It’s one of the headiest and most impressive sci-fi debuts since “Moon,” and if we see more than a handful of movies better than it across the next twelve months, 2015 will be a terrific year. [A]