Ex Machina marks esteemed writer Alex Garland’s first deviation into the world of directing – and he’s shown himself to be truly accomplished in this arena; creating one of the most absorbing, provocative and intelligent science fiction productions you’ll have seen in a long time, proving that you don’t need ridiculous budgets or films set on the moon to make an impact. In fact, this subtle, human drama has only four characters, and one fixed setting.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer who wins a competition which allows him the opportunity to spend a week at the abode of revolutionary scientist Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and analyse his latest creation. However even Caleb cannot fathom what he witnesses, as Nathan presents Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtakingly advanced A.I. However as Caleb observes his subject, the pair build up a rapport, and he starts to sense that she’s something of a prisoner in this isolated mansion – though he’s never sure quite who to believe.
Garland has masterfully created a tangible tension and intensity, that never once lets up. From the moment Caleb arrives you feel uneasy – heading into a mansion in the middle of nowhere, dropped off “nearby” by helicopter and then making his own way. Once he gets there the house is full up of locked doors, feeling more like a prison than somebody’s home. Nathan doesn’t help ease our discomfort either, being somebody who is so unhinged, so unpredictable. He’s a great creation too, subverting the typical “scientist” we’re grown accustomed to in cinema, instead appearing wearing just a vest and tracksuit bottoms, constantly seen with a bottle of beer in one hand. However such is the brilliance of the screenplay that you never once question the validity of his position, always believing him to be such a genius, despite the impression he gives off suggesting otherwise.
Isaac is matched at every turn by Gleeson, who again does such a fine, empathetic job of representing the viewer: an ordinary man coming into extremely extraordinary circumstances – in a similar vein to both Frank and About Time. Vikander is the star of the show though, as she has a really difficult character to embody. She’s beguiling and seductive, and you never know where you stand with Ava. She manages to be endearing, showing human qualities, and yet is vacant behind the eyes, as a robot should be. She’s particularly difficult to trust, as we have no grasp on her emotions, we’re unable to comprehend how she works – enhanced by the fact that we know who her creator is, and he’s hardly the most virtuous man.
Ex Machina is an ambitious, remarkable feat in storytelling, while also grounded by its sniping, pertinent context – as Nathan’s company Blackbook are comparable to the likes of Google in today’s world. Now we can do nothing but hope that Garland takes his seat in the director’s chair yet again, because while this may be about a robot, it’s about as affecting a human drama as you’ll ever see.