Best known for writing such films as 28 Days Later…, Sunshine and Dredd 3D, Alex Garland delivers his directorial debut Ex Machina; a sci-fi thriller starring Oscar Isaac (bearded), Domhnall Gleeson (American) and Alicia Vikander (robotic).
Isaac plays Nathan, the reclusive CEO of a gigantic tech company living alone in a remote testing facility. Like Sunshine‘s Captain Pinbacker and Apocalypse Now‘s Colonel Kurtz before him, Nathan is a man who’s spent too much time on his own. But while you’d spend all that time watching Total Wipeout and drinking alone, Nathan spends his days building a robot. And drinking alone. He selects Gleeson’s wide-eyed programmer Caleb to test the artificial intelligence of the sexy ladybot Ava, ethereally played by Vikander. Ava is beautifully designed, kind of resembling Natalie Portman – what with her blank features and everything. Robotic but expressive, Vikander’s performance delicately walks the fine line between human and machine; the subject of the Turing test, apparently devised to see if computers can convincingly flirt.
The always terrific Isaac stands out as the volatile genius effectively building a high-tech sex doll in his basement. This is Isaac’s Asimov, who even dances in one scene – add it to his expanding list of talents, which currently includes playing the guitar, speaking Spanish and growing an impressive beard. Gleeson (who himself played an AI in an episode of Black Mirror) is also strong as the young employee of a Google-style corporation; a satirical touch that gives this magnetic piece of sci-fi real resonance. Garland has always been good at presenting weighty themes in exciting ways – and Ex Machina is no ex-ception. He puts a psychosexual spin on a Frankensteinian story, his characters sharing tension wound tight as copper wire.
This claustrophobic three-hander boasts the elusive combination of style and substance; the design is as sleek and seductive as Ava herself. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s dreamy music invokes the electronic scores often employed by Danny Boyle; Garland’s frequent collaborator. Ex-Machina even has a great ending – but like so many films, it then carries on for another five minutes. There are a few plot holes, some predictable turns, and it should only really be 90 minutes long. But there’s a wonderful sense of purity to this sci-fi; a genre so often sabotaged by action and reliant on spectacle. Garland lets the ideas (and the robots) do the talking – he proves himself as talented a director as he is a writer, with this thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence, men controlling women, and Google spying on us all.