Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 108 minutes
Ex Machina illustrates the ethical problems that accompany scientific progress, in a clever and ever twisting narrative that is driven by tension right from the off. “This is not the history of man; this is the history of Gods”, enthuses Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a polite and gifted coder who is plucked from his day job in order to be the human component in a Turing Test – a trial that aims to discern whether a robot may be able to exhibit intelligent behaviour, indistinguishable from that of a human. His employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), requires him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), the artificial intelligence that he has created, and assess whether she is capable of passing as a human.
This experiment in robotic capacity instead becomes an introspective test of human behaviour and emotion, as Caleb is psychologically tortured by uncertainty and isolation. Like the audience, he is put on edge by the extreme remoteness of the setting; a cold and impersonal house, in the middle of nowhere, made to be incredibly claustrophobic by the copious locked doors, an absence of human interaction and unanswered questions. This is further emphasised by the character of Nathan, an egocentric, deeply mysterious genius whom we do not trust. On top of this, his alcoholism and aggression creates an ever-building sense of apprehension. We learn soon enough that we cannot take anything that Nathan says at face value, and thus the opening half hour has similar beats to the intro of a haunted house film.
The tension that builds throughout the film is nicely displaced by satire and crude humour. In particular, an entertaining Pulp Fiction-esque dance sequence arrives at the climax of one of the more anxious moments of the film. It feels so out of place in this sombre narrative that you cannot help but laugh. The aforementioned satire comes in the form of a comment on our modern day use of technology and the road it is leading us down. Nathan made his billions through the creation of an internet search engine, Bluebook, a not so subtle reference to companies like Facebook and Google, which gives a quip about the misuse of surveillance by technology companies a more cutting edge, and there are many references to our use of technology causing our own extinction. Blue Book is also the name of the most famous work by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which contains his ideas about linguistic analysis – a prominent feature in this film, where Caleb’s interview sessions with Ava provide the main structure.
Alicia Vikander delivers a performance of beautiful robotic precision, combined with the subtlety and emotional power of a human, and is undoubtedly the star of the show. She gives Ava a delicate charm that we, like Caleb, are immediately drawn to, while also being able to portray a complete transformation of character which shocks us in some of the darker moments of the film. Gleeson and Isaac are each fantastic as well, and some of the best scenes are simply their interaction. Gleeson’s Caleb is desperate to discuss Ava on an intellectual level, which is humorously undermined by the crude and simplistic language of Nathan. Gleeson’s portrayal of a naïve young man who is tortured by his own confusing emotions for Ava is particularly strong.
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is an undoubted success; this is one of the best psychological thrillers of recent years and may make you think twice before you next attempt to search something on Google.