Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) works for the company behind the popular search engine Blue Book. He wins a competition to stay with the creator and owner of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his isolated home on his expansive estate. Once Caleb arrives he finds out that he isn’t just there to relax with his boss. Nathan has created a robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Caleb is the key component in testing whether she has true Artificial Intelligence.
Garland has made an intelligent science fiction film, set really only a blink of an eye into a potential future, but wrapped it all in the taut skin of a very successful thriller. Though the plot drives you into asking questions as to what is really going on, the film reaches, like all the best science fiction, to questions of existence and consciousness. It asks what really is consciousness and what makes you human, and of course whether humans should ever play as God.
Writer/Director Alex Garland is a novelist, as well as having penned the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and Never Let Me Go, and you can tell as his writing experience shines through on what is a measured, refined and taught script. The film is almost set out in chapters, each day set up with the title card Ava Session and then the number that it is. This not only allows us a clear passage of time through the film but also gives us a ticking clock, counting down the days until Caleb’s time is up. Gladly, Garland’s talent lies in directing as well, effectively helming his first feature here. The script and direction keep the pace of the film flowing, drawing you in to its twisting plot. Garland leads you along and you happily follow on his trip down the rabbit hole.
Like all the best thrillers, Garland teases clues and questions for the viewer to try and keep up with from almost the very first scene. Garland lays the seeds of doubt and mystery in the mind of the viewer before ratcheting up the tension as the days count down, keeping the viewer guessing as to what is going on until the very last moment, each scene throwing up doubts and questions while still slowly unravelling the truth. The setting is claustrophobic, keeping you sealed with its characters in for most of the running time. Nathan’s home is all cold and stark, concrete blocks and panes of clear or frosted glass, a solid but soulless human built structure sitting within the beautiful expanse of the natural world around it. While Nathan plays as a God inside, the truth and beauty of the natural world and nature lies outside, all around him.
Garland has been clever in creating his directorial debut. He has created a film set almost entirely in one location with a small cast of characters, keeping the budget down allowing him to retain the intelligent themes and ideas, hire a cast of strong actors and use subtle but integral CGI. Of course it is good that his actors all put in brilliant performances as we are stuck with them for the duration. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a genius, isolated by his own doing, paranoid and guilty about his own work as he drinks himself to sleep every night before atoning with exercise and detoxing drinks the next morning. He is surprisingly jokey and also a little bit of a man child but still knows his own power that his intelligence and wealth can give him. Alicia Vikander, a relatively little known actress, is a revelation as the robotic Ava. She exudes a humanity but her movements are a little stilted owing to her robot makeup. You warm to her as Caleb does but you can never get over the fact that there is something not quite right. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is our guide through the film, the viewer firmly planted with him from the beginning as we live the twists and turns of the plot as he does. He is beset on either side by Nathan and Ava, knowing not whom to trust, if either of them, and not what their motivations are, and also the whether he should warm to either of them. The metaphor of a chess robot recurs during the film and the characters are all playing each other, facing off, plotting and moving before their grand schemes are revealed.
Ex Machina is an intelligent and thought provoking science fiction wrapped up in the skin of a taught and propulsive thriller. Garland’s writing and directing talent is clear to see and he is an exciting voice in British cinema. I can’t wait to see what he does next.