ex_machina_3Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland
Region of Origin: UK
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 108 mins

Synopsis: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I. (Source)

Before writing this, I thought I had Ex Machina figured out – but the more I think about it, I’m not so sure anymore. Writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut is one of stunning narrative precision, technical beauty and thematic enigma; you think you know where it’s going, until you don’t. Admittedly, in the scheme of things, the endgame doesn’t appear to be saying anything new about AI, but it’s a fresh look at what the genre’s always been fascinated in, dissecting the relationship between humanity and intelligence, as well as their very nature. What we get is an accomplished psychological thriller that plays out like a magic trick and will have you stunned when its final hand is revealed.

The story begins when Caleb, a computer programer at a Google-esque corporation called BlueBook, wins a week with the company’s genius CEO, Nathan at his secluded house in the mountains. Upon his arrival, he learns that he’s to be the human subject in a Turing test. His goal will be to determine whether an android named Ava is sentient and has in fact, gained the ability to learn and think for herself. Broken up into chapters which divide several sessions between Caleb and Ava, things are quickly revealed to be more complicated than they seem. The more Caleb and Ava learn about each other, the more hidden dangers begin to reveal themselves.

Films exploring artificial intelligence are all the rage nowadays, but most of them are cautionary tales about the dangers of robots overtaking humanity; Garland’s film addresses this, but takes a distinctly different route, instead studying the nature and essence of identity, gender and intelligence itself. The exploration of inextricable bonds between these ideas and the way we define them are what set this film apart and offer a haunting look at what it means to be human. Essentially a chamber piece told through a series of twisty conversations and ideas, the film has a fast pace that is equal parts erotic, atmospheric and at it’s very core, progressively unsettling. With Garland’s near-pitch perfect synergy of immaculate production design, pulsing score and layered plot, the film unfolds like a surreal nightmare that is akin to one of the best Twilight Zone episodes never made. Garland seems to have covered all the bases in his film, with an intelligent script that balances cold mechanics and unmistakable humanity; an impressive execution which evokes the very themes that it explores.

ex_machina_2Though the film is deceitfully minimal despite nuanced layers, what draws us in the most are its trio of performers. Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are almost exclusively the only actors in the film, save for Sonoya Mizuno’s catatonic drone (who is creepy and cleverly used), but the former do a great job at taking archetypal characters and imbuing them with either warm reliability or cold, distant enigma. Domhnall Gleeson is the most grounded of the trio, an audience surrogate that still feels like a real person, despite his necessity to parse most of the film’s questions in a way we can understand. He has the right amount of innocence and smarts which carry the film’s heart. As Ava the android, Alicia Vikander delivers a stunning performance from head to toe. Utilizing a background in dance, the actress emotes and carries her character mostly through body language (in conjunction with incredible sound design). Her intense gaze is equaled only by the way she gives Ava a humanity that through physicality seems just a bit off, yet spot on in terms of childlike wonder and curiosity. Oscar Isaac as Ava’s reclusive creator Nathan, has some of the film’s best lines, taking a mad scientist persona that is at once charismatic yet distant and just slightly over the top. His dry humor add generally aloof nature add a levity that is at times disturbing and unpredictable. The film does a good job of shifting our allegiances throughout, which constantly forces us to reevaluate each of these brilliant performances.

Already proven himself as a writer to be reckoned with, Alex Garland’s directorial debut proves that he’s going to be a cinematic voice to watch. With his first feature, he’s given us a new look at an old genre that only feels more urgent and relevant as time goes by, not to mention he’s stuck a strong balance between high concept, character and atmosphere. It’s a timeless work that begs for multiple viewings and has given already us one of cinema’s best androids. Ex Machina is a striking exploration of the human experience and a psychological mind bender that will keep you on your toes.

SG