Some movies enjoy a celebrated and high profile release schedule, and then there are movies like Ex Machina. Released around late January in the United Kingdom and then mid April in the United states, the directorial debut of Alex Garland has finally hit Australian shores (As a result I understand this is a rather ‘late’ review, but bare with me). But just because it’s out, it doesn’t make this an easy movie to find in cinemas down here. We’ve had a few sci-fi movies of varying degrees of hype and quality hit the cinema in recent years, so the the question is, if you can find your way into a screening of Ex Machina, is it worth it?
The director wastes little time with the setup, thrusting the audience into the plot with imagery more than words. Caleb, a computer programmer working at the ‘totally not Google’ Bluebook, wins a chance to visit the company’s secluded CEO Nathan at his estate in the wilderness. Once he meets the eccentric genius the real reason for his arrival is revealed: to test whether his latest creation, Ava, truly possesses artificial intelligence. The tests go on over the course of a week and the film settles into a slow and purposefully rhythm as Caleb begins to question Nathan’s motives and his own feelings towards Ava. There is a growing tension and uneasiness as everything starts to unravel towards the endgame that you know is coming, gradually upping the ante over the two hour movie.
Ex Machina isn’t about the ensemble cast. There are three main players in the piece, and beyond the odd bit role here and there the three leads are all you’ll see throughout. The film would collapse if there was a weak link, but Domhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Issac all do magnificent jobs. The subtleties in their acting sells the emotions and personalities of each character, drawing you into their world. Ava falls well and truly into the uncanny valley because of the nuanced portrayal by Vikander, so you never feel like you have a grasp on her true potential. Meanwhile Isaac’s Nathan is played teetering on a similar line. There is something off about Nathan, and it lends itself to Caleb’s mistrust that develops through the movie. But at the same time you can’t help but be drawn in by his character. Cinema has never been short on the enigmatic genius character, but Nathan is genuinely fascinating to watch.
The movie invites you to question the motives of everyone involved, which is enhanced by the visuals and sound. Garland, while already having stretched his legs writing for previous movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, makes a great first leap into the world of directing. In his debut he already shows the conceptual groundings of a far more experienced director. It’s not just the acting, but the visual direction that fosters the tension, lingering on a suspicious glare just long enough for emphasis or choosing when to shoot up close and personal or pull us away from the scene, and he should be commended for that.
The writing here is also worth mentioning, since once the film settles into Ava’s tests the dialogue commands a lot of the focus. It is fun to ease into your chair and listen to Nathan and Caleb go back and forth on their perceptions, as are the tests themselves where Ava and Caleb play a game of verbal cat and mouse. It all feels natural (or as natural as A.I does) rather than scripted for the sake of advancing the plot . As you’d expect with any film dealing with A.I, the notion of what makes us human is bounced around, and while you’ve heard it all before it never feels like forced exposition and jargon but genuine conversation that is both smart but easy to follow, which is difficult to accomplish.
The base plot isn’t all that unique. Stories of A.I are plentiful in the genre, either as a focal point or a supplementary aspect of a futuristic world. Apart from some brief musings on search engines there is nothing new presented here. The key plot points have all been done before, but the story is told so well that it still manages to feel fresh and interesting. Every plot development throughout the film is alluded to as little nuggets of information and dialogue find new relevance later on. Nothing that appears is wasted or unnecessary, and while this means the twists and turns in the plot don’t necessarily surprise, it makes sense. A story that goes from A to B but makes sense is better than one that bait and switches to C with no foreshadowing for the sake of shock value.
This is intelligent sci-fi, but it doesn’t carry any undue pretentiousness with it. It is a stimulating ride that does what great sci-fi should do: it entertains but also makes you think. The acting and direction is top notch, and what we are left with is a slow paced and tense drama that takes the concept of artificial intelligence and plays with the possibilities. It’s not redefining the genre or the concept of A.I in movies, but it takes an idea and executes it as well as any other. Ex Machina is brilliantly designed, and an absolute joy to watch. As expected it has flown under the radar somewhat, but like a lot of these lower budget but high concept sci-fi movies it will likely develop a strong and passionate fanbase once it gets a home release, and it deserves any recognition it gets. If you’re a fan of the genre, or of well made movies in general, this one is definitely worth a watch.