Release Date: January 21st, 2015 (UK); April 24th, 2015 (US)
Genre: Drama; Mystery; Science fiction
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
One moment programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sitting at his desk, face illuminated by the glaring light of his work computer. The next he is strapped inside a helicopter, flying over an ice age and landing in Jurassic Park. The technological feat awaiting him would likely put dino DNA revitalisers to shame. If not, his target locale is certainly about to outmatch Isla Nublar on the ominous atmosphere front. See, Caleb has won the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to spend a week working alongside his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the latter’s remote outpost.
Nathan is a sharp-minded billionaire, which is plain to see upon reaching his scientific base: polished surfaces, gleaming windows, furniture positioned perfectly. Mirrors are plentiful, perhaps incorporated to feed the CEO’s macho demeanour (physical exertion is a favourite), and conjure up artificial reflections of those looking into them — more on that shortly. As Nathan, Isaac evokes detachment yet somehow also total involvement; he is knowledgeable, not only scientifically, but anthropologically too. He pokes fun at Caleb while asking all of the right (leading) questions to support his manifesto — for one, he convinces the out-of-sync employee to sign an autocratic non-disclosure form.
At once a beer-guzzling waster who speaks in Ghostbusters gags when drunk and a piercing intellect who is hard to pin down, the character benefits from Isaacs’ mysterious approach. Caleb has been invited over to test Nathan’s newest creation: an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). A near instant iciness develops between both guys, purposefully invoked by Nathan and anxiously accepted by Caleb, and it only gets worse as the experiment progresses. Test sessions between Caleb and Ava are signified by creepy, black title cards bred from the hard-edged Alien school of font. These interactions begin innocently enough, though the tables subtly turn when Ava asks her examiner about his love life (“Is your status single?”). Caleb giggles accordingly.
Vikander is brilliant — she moves with an odd mechanical smoothness, and glides with inhuman grace. Her tone is at once impersonal and enrapturing. Metaphorically speaking, her existence embodies humankind’s attraction towards technological achievement and how said attraction has been, and will continue to be, massively detrimental (atomic bombs are mentioned). Writer-director Alexander Garland uses Nathan as a centrepiece for humankind’s petulance: at one point Nathan informs us he made Ava simply because he could. It is also worth pointing out the excellent work of Gleeson, who juggles both the need to discover and the fear of causing a fuss with pristine awkwardness.
Caleb doesn’t know how to process his attraction, dismissing it as a false consequence of the preconditions set by Nathan. “This is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect,” replies the CEO with a dose of glee. Whereas earlier test sessions between Caleb and Ava would show the former on the left and the latter on the right, cinematographer Rob Hardy flips the two in later sessions. All of a sudden, he is part-AI and she is part-human. The artificial textures are so genuine looking they incur an uncanny valley vibe — the skin, the limbs, and the eyes all seem real, but we know they aren’t. We see all of this through Caleb’s gaze and Caleb, unsurprisingly, is bewildered and amazed, his sanity in depletion.
Garland delivers an indie outing that looks more mature than the norm and one that seems to carry more purpose too. It shares the same tense underbelly as Kelly Reichardt’s Eco-thriller Night Moves, only Garland’s film doesn’t lose steam halfway through, tension superbly maintained at the expense of clear-cut characterisation. We never truly understand anybody’s motive — how much does Nathan actually know about Ava? How much does Ava actually know about the programme? The entire film is like a sinister, sublime chess match formulated entirely by Nathan, and Caleb is the piece being played.
Dewy, misty surroundings denote total seclusion. A haunting score heightens bouts of inevitable eeriness (inevitable, but terrifically construed), particularly during a spying session. Even sweeter musical inflections, like an Explosions in the Sky sounding addition, are laden with menace. Every so often blood red warning lights repaint the scientific centre as a doomed spaceship — Event Horizon springs to mind, or perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another Garland-penned film. It looks and feels like proper science fiction: you don’t know what is around the corner, but you do know whatever it is will hold secrets primed to test your mind and probably freak you out.
Considering all I’ve written, you might see Ex Machina as an old school genre movie: dotted with expositional speeches that explore futuristic themes; plans smartly laid out and then executed; tension constantly simmering; characters attempting to outsmart each other. Even though it falters slightly at the very, very last hurdle — though one wonders where else the story could have conceivably gone — smart sci-fi is a treat, and this will test your brain in the most engaging manner.