Sunday, 10 May 2015

Film Review: Ex Machina

"What happens to me if I fail your test?"

Exploring concepts of artificial intelligence and morality, Ex Machina is a British science-fiction thriller from writer/director Alex Garland. It stars Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. 

Caleb (Gleeson) is a computer programmer for the world's largest search engine, 'Bluebook'. The companies enigmatic founder is a reclusive man named Nathan (Isaacs), and after winning 1st prize in a competition to meet'n'greet the famous billionaire, Caleb is flown to his remote private estate in the mountains. 

It's here that Caleb learns that he is to be the human element in a real-life Turing test, an experiment that will determine whether Nathan's advanced artificial intelligence, Ava (Vikander), has true consciousness and self-awareness that can convincingly mimic a human. 

What follows is a series of mind-bending tests (or 'sessions') where Caleb learns about and grows to care for Ava as something more than just a machine. More life-like that anything he's ever encountered before, the lines between human and machine begin to blur and Caleb and Nathan come to blows over Ava's true purpose.

The first thing you notice about Ex Machina is how sleek and sexy the production design is - it's like Stanley Kubrick and Steve Jobs had a dirty love child with a Bjork music video. Full of frosted glass, chrome and gloomy low-light, it's somewhere in between an episode of Lost in Space and an Apple Store.

The VFX work on Ava's intricate innards and brain are fantastically detailed, even if they probably took up 80% of the budget. From the high-tech laboratories to the colour-drenched forests, this film is gorgeous to look at and through this, Garland has not just added another brilliant screenplay to his body of work (Sunshine, Dredd), but also shows himself to be an exciting visual director.

Gleeson nails the 'wide-eyed and naive' vibe and we really buy into his connection with Ava. His arc sees Caleb gradually fall under Ava's spell, and become increasingly suspicious of Nathan - it's expertly written and Garland carefully sows seeds of doubt and suspicion here and there. The more we learn about Ava, the more disconcerting and unsettling the film becomes. Does she have good intentions, or is she playing everyone for her own means? How intelligent is she, really?

Much of this can be afforded to Alicia Vikander's sublime performance - quiet, cold and withdrawn, Vikander is scarily accurate in her expressions and mannerisms. Subtle details like a tilt of the head here or a slight smirk there further adds to this thick, gooey atmosphere of tension and doubt. Through this, we see Ava grow and learn, methodically and maliciously. It's some of the most powerful and engaging character development I've seen all year.

Oscar Issac was hard to pin down as Nathan, the genius inventor who is equal parts laidback and uncompromising, sort of like Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. I liked him because he was so clever and enigmatic, but I don't think he grew or evolved as effectively as the other two leads. Sonoya Mizuno also stars as Nathan's peculiar assistant Kyoko, who adds further mystery and intrigue to the story - you'll probably guess what her secret is, but it doesn't make the reveal any less eerie or effective.

The concept itself isn't that remarkable, but there are elements that separate Ex Machina from the rest - how Nathan has harnessed his power and resources through Bluebook makes for some interesting commentary on data mining and privacy, whilst sexuality and gender (as well as sexualisation) of technology is pulled into the discussion as well. I felt like the film did more than it needed to do and went that extra mile to add further depth to the narrative through the exploration of these themes. For a two-hour long film, Garland covers a lot of ground.

It may wade into familiar ethical and moral waters, but when the characters, dialogue and design are this rich and detailed, does it really matter? The consequences of creating AI are well-trodden, and within the confines of a single film Garland explores just enough to make you feel satisfied and not brain-fried. It's intelligent and trim, with not a lick of excess or wastage - as they say, less is actually more.

The Verdict: 9/10 

Provocative, sleek and thought-provoking, Ex Machina is a sublime slice of 21st Century science-fiction that feels both futuristic and scarily conceivable. Gleeson and Vikander give the best performances of their career (so far) whilst Garland bookmarks himself as an exciting directorial talent. Simply put, it's my favourite film of 2015 so far.

Ex Machina is in cinemas now.


  1. UGH! I can't wait to see this!

    1. It's really great, definitely get to it at the movies if you can :)



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