Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins an office competition to spend one week at the home of his company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). After being dropped off at Bateman’s remote mountain estate, Caleb discovers he has been tasked with an unexpected purpose: Bateman has constructed a human-like android (Alicia Vikander), and wants Caleb to test if it is self-aware.
Alex Garland, author of the popular novel The Beach, has been spending the past two decades slowly establishing himself as one of the most important voices in science fiction cinema. After a somewhat shaky start filing off the serial number on The Day of the Triffids for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), he made multiple strong contributions to the genre including screenplays for Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012). Ex Machina, released in 2014, was his first directorial feature – one that he followed four years later with the excellent Annihilation. He knows science fiction well, and certainly recognises his influences, and film by film he has provided clever ideas, sharp dialogue, and more recently a powerful visual and musical aesthetic too. At this stage Garland should be considered as necessary a contributor to the genre as Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams – arguably even more so.
Ex Machina showcases his talents brilliantly. It is a science fiction drama of a modest size, enabling strong character work and the expression of provocative ideas. It works as an edgy and increasingly ominous drama, but that drama is underpinned by fascinating ideas of artificial intelligence, human nature, and how to prove one’s self-awareness. It is clear from the outset that things are not what they seem, however unlocking the truth behind the apparent situation takes time and observation – and even then may not be apparent to viewers until the climax. Of all of Garland’s film work to date, this seems his most accomplished screenplay.
The script is played out by an exceptional cast. Domhnall Gleeson exposes a great deal of uncertainty and emotional frailty in Caleb. His nervous, lonely demeanour slowly teases out more and more of his back story, as he sets upon the task of assessing the android Ava’s sentience. Oscar Isaac steps out with a wonderfully vivid portrayal of Nathan, riffing off a number of real-life technology billionaires with a performance rich in arrogance, flair, condescension, and an underlying sense of cruelty. So convinced of his own success, and so used to living his life to an exacting standard, he ironically seems the least human character in the film. Alicia Vikander is particularly good in the film, successfully expressing a character who is, all in all, entirely unknowable. Is Ava self-aware, or merely a simulation of self-awareness? Is she telling the truth? Is she capable of deception? Vikander goes a long way to express that uncertainty.
She also looks outstanding, with a costume enhanced by computer-generated effects to make her visibly inhuman. Half of her body is transparent and artificial, with the other half – most importantly her face – simply taken from principal photography to fully preserve the performance. To an extent the film rises and falls based on the audience believing in Ava’s existence, and between writing, acting, and effects that realism is effectively achieved.
At first the film seems a rather patriarchal one, with two male characters discussing the right of a female-presenting third character to exist. It does all seem aggressively male, before Ava begins to assert herself a little. By the film’s end there is a strong argument to be made that it is a more feminist text after all, but discussing this at length would mean spoiling some of the film’s plot developments.
This is a smart, thoughtful, and thrilling science fiction drama. As a science fiction enthusiast I feel rather foolish for being so tardy in catching up with it. Avoid the same mistake.