Film review: EX MACHINA, from ‘Built For Speed’

In 2001 Stephen Spielberg, picking up an incomplete Stanley Kubrick project, made the flawed but often very moving film AI: Artificial Intelligence.  That film explored, within a modern-day Pinocchio story, the possibilities of artificial intelligence and of cyborgs who could think and feel.  Alex Garland’s (writer on 28 Days Later) fascinating directorial debut Ex Machina takes the idea of artificial humanity into darker and more disturbing territory than Spielberg and Kubrick’s film.

Domhnall Gleeson plays eager young computer coder Caleb who wins the unusual but much sought after competition prize of spending a week with his company’s mysterious and reclusive founder Nathan at his remote bunker-like compound in Norway.  Caleb soon discovers that he hasn’t won a leisurely holiday but is instead part of a strange experiment.  The creepy Nathan wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a cyborg or “AI” named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to test how close to self-awareness and true artificial intelligence Ava is. As Caleb converses with Ava he begins to suspect that Nathan has more sinister motives for bringing him to his secret facility.

This is a smart, slow burn sci-fi mystery that relies less on visceral thrills than startling revelations about the characters (human and machine) and about burgeoning technology and it’s relation to mankind. Garland’s articulate and thought-provoking script touches on highbrow concepts such Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories, the definition of humanity and man’s right to play God.  Ex Machina also speculates on disturbing possibilities such as a post-human future in which artificially intelligent beings look back on us as we look back on extinct early human species.

Ex Machina also touches on the question of nature versus nurture and the way in which social forces shape us. Importantly Garland extends this to a feminist exploration of the way in which men try to control and even construct women.  One sequence in which Caleb discovers cupboards full of Ava prototypes even posits Nathan as some modern-day Bluebeard.  Garland also provides compelling insights into the way the internet and search engines are reflecting and moulding our reality. This is, however, a science fiction film and these academic and sociological issues are touched on rather than prosecuted in great depth.

With many scenes involving tense and confined exchanges between Nathan, Caleb and Ava, Ex Machina occasionally resembles a stage play.  Fortunately, Garland overcome any sense of staginess by having Nathan and Caleb occasionally step outside the oppressive catacombs of Nathan’s home which allows cinematographer Rob Hardy to take advantage of the stunning Norwegian landscape of glaciers and waterfalls.

Domhnall Gleeson delivers a low-key but effective performance as the brilliant but naïve Caleb while Alicia Vikander is wonderfully and at times disturbingly mysterious as Ava.  Most memorable, though, is Oscar Isaac as the superbly objectionable Nathan.  With his shaved head and bushy beard, Isaac bears a strange resemblance to Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover.  Isaac makes Nathan an odd but compelling bundle of contradictions: an alcoholic and yet a wheatgrass guzzling health freak, he’s also one of those obnoxious people who pretends to be cool, laid back and open-minded but creates constant tension when he’s in the room and berates people who don’t think exactly as he does.

With its measured pace and emphasis on dialogue, Ex Machina won’t suite all tastes but it’s intelligence, wealth of confronting ideas, fine performances and remarkable visual style will enrapture fans of cerebral sci-fi.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Science Fiction/ Thriller.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Alex Garland.

Release date: 7th May 2015.

Running time: 110 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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