Alex Garland adds a stylish directorial debut to his writing repertoire which already includes atmospheric and insidious gems such as 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine. Ex Machina feels like a claustrophobic, elongated short story, drawing inspiration from Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick’s ideas on the limits and contradictions of artificial intelligence but with Garland’s own distinct fingerprint.
Ex Machina is an ambient and taut thriller, a triple hander between a trio of marvellous talents: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. Gleeson plays Caleb, a 24 year old coder working for a Google-like organisation, who finds Willy Wonka’s golden ticket and is given an opportunity to meet the reclusive genius, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and test-run his latest foray into robotics. Situated in a remote and unspecified, highly reflective underground lair, Garland does a lot within its quiet confines. It’s visually arresting and emotionally unnerving.
Vikander plays the robot, Ava. Ignited by the search terms millions of internet users plug into a search engine, Blue Book, Ava’s eyes elicit the knowledge of people’s inner desires. Garland probes the dichotomy between how much people allow their computers to know about themselves and the fallacy that these intentions can be kept hidden and intimate. Vikander’s eyes are piercing and bright, a frightening personification of an all-knowing online tool. As Nathan explains, Blue Book doesn’t simply tell us what people are thinking, but how they are thinking. Caleb’s mission is to carry out a Turing Test, performing seven interrogations of Ava, to ascertain whether she can pass for a human being. As Caleb already knows she is a robot, the tests takes on a psychological life of their own, creating an entangled number of possible outcomes, held in a web by Garland’s inquisitive, tight script.
Ex Machina‘s ending doesn’t scream a revelation as much as it chills and cleanses, almost offering itself as a complimentary companion piece to last year’s curiously aloof Under the Skin. With a modest £13m budget, Garland plays around with his themes of human fallibility to craft a remarkably slick and puzzling sci-fi thriller.
Review by David Rank
Ex Machina is out now in the UK. Running time 108 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).