Cinema’s obsession with exploring man’s creation of artificial intelligence is almost as old as the medium itself, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Spike Jonze’s Her, to name but a few. The latest film to mine such fruitful sci-fi subject matter is Ex Machina, the slick, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing directorial debut from Alex Garland, frequent writing collaborator of Danny Boyle on the likes of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, as well one of those behind the awesome Dredd reboot.
Set in what appears to be the not too distant future, Ex Machina (from the Latin meaning “from the machine”) centres on young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition to visit the reclusive compound of his mysterious boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once there he soon discovers the real reason he has been selected: to take part in a unique experiment to evaluate the human qualities of a beautiful, lifelike A.I. that Nathan has built.
There are no prizes for guessing that all is not as it seems and certainly not the cosy and controllable, albeit unconventional, experiment first presented. Garland shrewdly lures the audience into the situation with a false sense of security, intriguing us just as Caleb is until we’re secluded in a world of advance technology irresistible to those with an interest in hard science fiction. As so many sci-fi films of the past have realised, artificial intelligence is really the Holy Grail and whether it poses a threat or enhances our lives, it’s a beguiling thing to watch.
As with all good sci-fi, Ex Machina uses its ideas to pose age-old but still utterly fascinating questions: What makes us human? How far is too far with technology? Is advancement for the sake of advancement a good thing? What are the responsibilities of creator to creation? What are the potential dangers of playing God, so to speak? (It’s interesting to note that the usual Deus – meaning God – is missing from the start of the title) It’s not always handled in the subtlest of ways as Caleb and Nathan sometimes literally sit around asking each other these questions but that can be forgiven when what they’re talking about is so fascinating and when it has the intellectual and visual goods to back that up.
Speaking of visuals, the CGI used to bring the artificial intelligence – named Ava – to life on-screen is quite breathtaking, far better than some Hollywood films that have far bigger budgets with which to play. Played by rising star Alicia Vikandar, Ava is quite clearly not human and yet has been programmed to act like she is. The rub here is that the point of the experiment is to show the subject that she isn’t human and see if he still has feelings for her anyway. Since Caleb is very much our anchor throughout the story, we as the audience are as much a part of the experiment as he is and it’s a testament to the combination of the writing, the realistic CGI and Vikandar’s performance that we not only believe in her as a credible being within the story but start to empathise with her and even find her strangely alluring – the film has fun playing around with the idea of sexuality and attractiveness in this technology-driven modern world.
Aside from the full-on science fiction stuff, the film also provides a good old fashioned game of intellectual cat and mouse – a sort of Sleuth for the iPad generation in which Caleb and Nathan go back and forth, subtly testing each other. It’s a lot of fun trying to work out who knows more at any given point and if Nathan is really in as much control as we think and if Caleb is as naive, all within this increasingly tense and claustrophobic setting. This dynamic is achieved largely thanks to the performances. Gleeson is very solid as Caleb, taking what could have been a slightly bland blank slate of a character and giving him real depth and pathos. Isaac is also great as the mysterious, charismatic creator luring in Caleb like a sinister, heavily bearded fisherman not yet ready to decide if he’s going to just catch and release. But it’s the performance of Vikandar as Ava – the only one of the main trio without a Y chromosome – that truly steals the show. Remember her name, she’s going places.
As the film heads towards its tense ending with a twisty-turny narrative that keeps you guessing, dipping its toe ever so slightly into creepy horror every now and then along the way, it will depend entirely on how much you’re invested in the outlandish sci-fi ideas if you’re willing to just go with it. The ending will split audiences, for sure. But whether you’re ultimately willing to throw caution to the wind or not, Ex Machina provides some truly thought-provoking, discussion-starting viewing for those who like their science fiction to get them thinking more than just provide them with empty visual entertainment. More sci-fi like this, please.
Ex Machina is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.