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January 20, 2015
Alex Garland’s directorial career couldn’t start any better. The English writer, mostly known for being the mind behind Danny Boyle’s cult 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007) (but also the adaptations of 2010’s Never Let Me Go and 2012’s Dredd), makes his debut behind the camera with a taut and intense sci-fi thriller.
Ex Machina is a remarkably solid feature, one of the best of the genre in recent past. It embodies very well all of Garland’s distinctive touches; if you are familiar with his work, its horror notes shouldn’t come as a surprise. Apart from the obvious thematic reference to Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Ex Machina echoes titles such as Moon (2009), or even Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999). Without being as groundbreaking or action-packed as the Wachowskis’ career-defining feature, Garland’s film will raise substantial existentialist issues, and keep you entertained until the very last shot.
The plot revolves around a new robot built by billionaire and tech guru Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. Invited to participate in the world-changing event is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young coder tasked with administering the Turing Test to the machine. Named after computer pioneer Alan Turing (yes, the one Benedict Cumberbatch plays in the recently Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game), the test is commonly used to evaluate a machine’s ability to “appear” human, by presenting it with a set of questions; the machine passes the test when it displays a behaviour intelligent enough to trick the examiner into believing they’re talking with a human being.
Complicating Caleb’s task are Nathan’s magalomaniac tendencies, and his highly claustrophobic bunker-like mansion. What’s more, Caleb’s sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot, prove that Nathan’s gone a great length to create an extremely well-functioning and self-aware artificial intelligence. In fact, he might have gone a little too far.
Ex Machina eludes very well the typical constraints of low-budget sci-fi features: from the credible “high-tech research facility” setting to the special effects used for Ava’s android body, the film has nothing to envy to the much more lavish features it may compete against in the pre-Oscar season. When the rhythm slows down, especially during the most technical (and philosophical) conversations between the two leads, all of Garland’s bravura and incisive writing stand out, making the sequences flow smoothly.
Although the tension is consistently high, Ex Machina would benefit from a stronger “think outside the box” approach, avoiding those few rulebook plot twists that may seem anticlimactic. Garland’s choice of making the story more linear is debatable but still effective, and the cast is the icing on the cake.
Gleeson and Vikander are both convincing in their roles, but it’s Oscar Isaac who steals the show with his impersonation of evil genius and drunkard (not to mention lunatic and recluse, almost Colonel Kurtz-like) Nathan. After his outstanding (yet unfairly overlooked during awards season) performance in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, there is no more denying his talent; maybe his upcoming roles in crime drama A Most Violent Year (out this week), and highly anticipated blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse will finally grant him the official recognition he deserves. Ex Machina is definitely another step in the right direction.
Ex Machina is available on DVD and Blu-ray from June 1st