A man of many talents, Alex Garland made the leap into movies when his novel, The Beach, was adapted onto the big screen by Danny Boyle, and he collaborated with the director again by writing the horror film 28 Days Later. After penning the script for the much-lauded Dredd reboot in 2012, Ex Machina marks Garland’s transition into the director’s chair. A pulsating and cognitive sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina rises above the standard moral ambiguities surrounding artificial intelligence (see Chappie and I, Robot) by questioning the foundations of humanity itself. An indeterminate protagonist and a polished aesthetic are key to Ex Machina‘s beguiling narrative; one where a pervading sense of dread looms over characters who are ostensibly both the focus and source of an impending disaster.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) believes that he has just won the opportunity to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac) — his CEO, and, quite possibly, the richest man in the world. After arriving by helicopter to Nathan’s mountain retreat, Caleb is informed that the “contest” was a ruse and specifically designed to seek out the perfect employee for Nathan’s newest project. Non-disclosure agreement signed, Nathan brings Caleb in on the greatest technological advancement in the history of man — artificial intelligence. The task for which Caleb was selected is a weeklong Turing Test, wherein Caleb will be the proctor, and Ava (Alicia Vikander) will be the subject.
Garland drifts harmoniously through his multifaceted narrative, lingering with each of his characters for long enough to build a sense of atmosphere but never overstaying his welcome. As a writer, Garland shuns superfluous exposition, relying heavily on his talented cast, and an oscillating score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Beak fame.
Ex Machina is largely a film of shifting disposition. As Garland stalks the halls of the sleek research facility or stops to consider the natural beauty of the mountainous setting, he is constantly experimenting with techniques of conveying mood and building character psychology. Intimate moments shared by Caleb and Ava feel oddly sweet in the coldly sterile observation room, while Nathan is usually framed by the chaotic beauty of a Jackson Pollock painting or the sprawling wilderness that surrounds his resplendent home. Torn between two worlds of artifice, Caleb is left grasping for meaning; words become mechanical and calculated, his actions become increasingly desperate and bold.
Reflections (internal and external) play a major role in Ex Machina — a byproduct of the incredible Norwegian setting and Mark Digby’s futuristic production design. A prison made of glass, Nathan’s home/lab captures the innermost motivations of its characters in the twisted reflections that appear on every surface. Never wasting the opportunity to ponder these moments of quietude, Garland is enchanted by the possibilities of his characters’ self-contemplation by fixating on the powerful imagery unique to each surface. Ex Machina is, itself, a reflection of societal conceptions of gender and sexuality, boiling each down to simple programming via a combination of nature and nurture. Prodded about giving Ava a specific sexuality and gender, Nathan explains that without sexual or gender identity, what reason does one grey box have to talk to another grey box.
A commanding first directorial effort from Alex Garland, Ex Machina is the product of a perfectly-tuned collaborative endeavor, much like the mind of its artificial centerpiece. Strong performances, exquisite production design, haunting cinematography and a throbbing score come together to produce a wholly original piece of cinema. A perverse, captivating and twisted fantasy, we never quite know who to root for in Ex Machina, nor do we quite care, as the real star is revealed to be the visionary director and his exemplary cast and crew.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.