Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of writer/screenwriter Alex Garland, the man responsible for novel The Beach and the scripts for Danny Boyle movies 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, among other creative efforts. It’s no surprise then that this film is rich with intriguing ideas and well-crafted dialogue, material that has attracted fine talent to star in a movie that’s essentially a smart sci-fi thriller and three-hander about artificial intelligence. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer who wins a competition and gets to meet his idol, Oscar Isaac’s genius Nathan, who wants Caleb to participate in an experiment that revolves around Alicia Vikander’s AI Ava. What follows is a story that keeps you guessing and has you on the edge of your seat throughout.
One of Ex Machina‘s many strengths is the fact it’s a movie that doesn’t spell anything out. The camera shows you the characters, has them talk to each other and make certain decisions, but it’s up to the viewer to make sense of their actions, to interpret what’s happening on screen, to figure out what’s true and what’s false. It’s this constant guessing game that creates a lot of tension and really makes the film stand out. Ex Machina is a movie that truly grabs you to never let you go and because of it certain twists and turns can be downright horrifying. The film’s pacing is equally important in this regard: Garland takes his time to set up the characters, their dynamic and the central ideas his picture is about. This means that Ex Machina is a slow burn, but the payoff is that its climax is truly terrific and hard-hitting. Fitting for a film that doesn’t pull any punches.
What lies at the heart of the tension is how much you are invested in the movie’s central characters and themes. Ex Machina‘s three leads are all mesmerizing to watch and really disappear into their respective characters, conveying a complexity and nuance that’s not always there in genre pictures that examine subject matter this well-trodden. Because let’s be honest here: AI has been the subject of a lot of scifi movies already, almost a corner stone of the genre. What makes Ex Machina so interesting though is the angle Garland has chosen to pursue: he’s not really interested in the science and technology component, but rather in the emotional side of the story. While questions about humanity are also par for the course regarding most science fiction films that tackle artificial intelligence (Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and manga adaptation Ghost In The Shell come to mind), Garland genuinely focuses on the questions the creation of a true AI would raise and how these questions would not only complicate philosophical notions, but would also have emotional consequences. Add to that a very topical discussion I won’t spoil here and you have a film that’s both of the times and timeless, a picture that takes genre tropes that go as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but instills them with new life.
The setting, design and score are all as well-thought out as Ex-Machina‘s plot and characters. The movie takes place in Nathan’s secluded house/research facility, a place that looks futuristic and industrial om the one hand, but is also organic and natural because of the fact it’s build into a forested mountain. The score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow boasts the same kind of duality: cold distortion and buzzing synths make way for the warmth of strings and soft guitars, only to intertwine or overtake each other once again. The way the central ideas of nature versus artificiality, past and future, find their way into the set and sound design is masterful, and it again adds another haunting and powerful layer to the film. Rob Hardy’ cinematography, finally, makes everything look crisp, luscious, slick and neat, and makes sure that Ex Machina, in addition to everything else, is simply gorgeous to look at.
Ex Machina is a brilliant directorial debut full of tension and ideas. While it uses plenty of scifi tropes, it finds a way to rise above those through clever twists and the interesting characters at its center, played to perfection by terrific actors. 9/10