When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, she set a template for stories about man playing at being God that has lasted for nearly two centuries. Her doctor was concerned with the reanimation of man, an experiment which resulted in the earliest science fiction novel, asking big questions about man's place in the world, the nature of humanity and the way in which society's nurture can alter it. The inspiration for Ex Machina is clear as first-time director, long-time screenwriter Alex Garland remoulds Shelley's tale for the 21st century, melding her Romantic sensibilities and philosophical searching with a technological sheen that re-examines the age-old question of what makes us human.
The film finds a computer programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning the opportunity to spend a week in the company of his reclusive billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As is so often the case, all is not what it seems and Caleb discovers he is to be the human component in a Turing test, the ultimate test to see if artificial intelligence can pass for being human and all that entails. The artificial intelligence in question is a humanoid construction called Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb progresses through the test, he finds himself questioning everything he has been told so far and forming a curious relationship with the inquisitive Ava.
Meticulous in its construction, not a single word of Garland's screenplay is wasted, building the tension between the three leads beautifully as the story unfolds. It deftly combines exposition with the action itself and considering the subject matter, it neither belittles nor leaves its audience behind. Garland has an impressive track record with genre screenwriting anyway, but he more than proves himself as a director too, intricately building the claustrophobic world of Nathan's retreat. That world-building ensures that the film not only excels narratively, but thematically too.
The location and design of Nathan's house is a perfect microcosm of the way in which Ex Machina sets binary opposites together seemingly in harmony. Conversations about evolution and the natural world take place within a location that itself sees the meeting of the chaos of nature and the order of the modern world. Nathan's house is all clean lines and carefully arranged rooms with the natural world jutting in through a stylishly designed rock formation as part of a wall or a tree growing through into a small courtyard. Floor to ceiling windows allow its occupants to see out to the mountains, the forest and all of the impressive scenery beyond. The message of this house is clear; this is a place where nature is controlled and kept at bay, a fitting house for a man attempting to play God.
Ava, the figure at the heart of the film, is another example of this meeting of opposites. Impressively designed and realised via Vikander's performance, Ava is a combination of human features and metal bodywork, glimpsed through transparent panels on her arms, torso and legs. It is an uncanny version of humanity and Vikander captures both facets of the character masterfully, given her an almost mechanical physicality with a none-more human personality. The casting of Vikander also builds in a layer of objectification regarding both Caleb and Nathan's interaction with her; it's something Garland casts a critical eye over. It builds into a voyeurism at the heart of the film, one which not only casts Ava within the male gaze of Nathan and Caleb, but also the entirety of humanity. Nathan's search engine, Bluebook, can code and quantify human needs, constructed solely from the profile their use of the internet constructs.
Both starring in a certain blockbuster sequel later this year, 2015 looks set to be a big year for Isaac and Gleeson. In this smaller, confined world, Gleeson brings a wide-eyed naivety and a warm performance to the film. As the human component in the Turing test, his innate goodness filters through and he makes for a sympathetic narrative focus. It also helps that he has an exceptional chemistry with both Vikander and Isaac. Isaac may have broken through with the morose Llewyn Davis, but he proves his versatility here, giving a performance that is operating on several levels all at once. Mercurial, sinister and broodingly physical, he brings a masculine posturing to the film that produces an excellent counterpoint to Vikander's soft femininity.
Ex Machina is fascinating, multi-layered piece of work and Alex Garland's directorial debut is extremely impressive, combining thematic explorations with a chilling, twisting narrative. It's an intelligent new spin on a Frankenstein-like tale and will stand as an example of the kind of clever science fiction that enthrals and bewilders in equal measure.
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