There’s something very endearing about British cinema’s recent increase in output that focuses on femininity. Picking up on themes from last years aesthetic masterpiece Under the Skin, Ex Machina takes a different – and altogether more wordy approach – and along the way engages much more closely with scientific principles. Half of Ex Machina itself could be considered a series of explicit scientific and ethical theories spiced up for the screen but where Ex Machina excels is in its cinematic foundations. It may be a movie about robots and their creators but thematically it is much more of a horror movie masquerading as sci-fi.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a coder, like any other working for the world’s largest search engine corporation. But when he wins a lottery to spend a week with the company CEO, the eccentric reclusive genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb finds himself whisked out to an advanced living quarter at the center of a huge private reserve. Nathan soon introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander) a prototype Artificial Intelligence under the condition that Caleb, as a third party, runs a series of sessions to determine whether Ava really does possess true adaptive intelligence.
Admittedly, this all sounds fairly dry. But consider the talent involved; Gleeson is one of today’s hottest young actors, holding his own against the likes of Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal in last years Frank. Isaac is one of this decades most skilled chameleons and his far-out scientist is less a goofy sap and more of a short tempered alcoholic, either way standing miles away from his other big release this week A Most Violent Year. Alex Garland, the writer and first time director is responsible for some of the most important genre resurfacing of the past 15 years with screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd under his belt. These are strong, interesting players who know good work and their confidence in Ex Machina shows early.
Alicia Vikander however stands out as the outsider from a number of angles – the only speaking female role, the least established name involved, the titular robot of the movie. Despite these challenges she stands out as wholly engaging and one of the film’s key strengths. Her performance coupled with Garland’s script and some astounding visual effects do a tremendous job of running the gamut between emotive resonance and artificiality. At times it’s easy to forget that the face attached to silicone and metal framing talking on the screen is supposed to be a robot – but that’s entirely the point. Vikander’s performance is not just a vast improvement from her recent turn in Testament of Youth, but the key that unlocks the heart of a movie that although frequently clinical has a lot of feeling.
Despite that abundance of sentiment, Ex Machina‘s key concern is one of pacing. There’s a lot of talk about how the characters are feeling and how Ava impacts Caleb or Nathan but it takes a long time for any of that to show on the screen. When it does, though, it is both impressive and powerful in the most believable fashion, but it certainly takes its time.
With a tremendous tiny cast and a smart and established writer in Alex Garland, the real question here was how well he would handle adopting directing duties. For the benefit of smart science-fiction, it turns out that Garland is a natural director with a bright future as long as his future work is as good as Ex Machina.
Perhaps a little too science heavy for some, Ex Machina is a terrifying look at a shockingly plausible future with interesting and morally ambiguous characters and a terrific leading performance from Alicia Vikander.
Ex Machina is out now in cinemas everywhere.