[Image courtesy of exmachinamovie.co.uk]
Alex Garland is a man of many talents. He has written three novels, including The Beach and The Tesseract, his screenplay work spans diverse genres, from the gritty horror of 28 Days Later to the elegant tragedy of Never Let Me Go, and he has even been a film producer and videogame co-writer. He’s a man with an incredibly diverse CV and now he adds another skill to his repertoire.
His directorial debut Ex Machina is a sleek, entertaining and thought-provoking thriller.
Ex Machina follows computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a trip to his reclusive employer Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) remote mansion. On arrival, Caleb realises this isn’t a simple meet-and-greet; Nathan has created the world’s first convincing robotic AI and he wants to test his creation on Caleb. Caleb’s task is to conduct interviews with the robot and answer the age-old sci-fi question – are machines capable of original thought?
If all this sounds rather heavy and philosophical, it isn’t. Garland’s film, from his own original screenplay, doesn’t dumb down its complex themes, but it doesn’t dwell on them either. This is a slick, pulse-pounding thriller. The most intriguing elements of the central premise are revealed in the actors’ performances, particularly Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava. We glean as many uncertainties from her performance as we do from the questions posed by Garland’s script. The subtle mixture of human expression with robotic mannerisms meld together to unnerving effect. Her motivations are always unclear – if she is capable of motivations at all – and, in Ava, we have a truly modern femme fatale.
[Image courtesy of IMDB]
Vikander’s performance is superb, but it is the visual effects that deserve the most plaudits. Ava’s physicality is one of the most striking elements of the film. The wire mesh that surrounds her body is both futuristic and plausible; a chilling contrast to her human façade and a flawless visual effect. This contrast of nature and machinery is reflected in the excellent production design; an architectural masterpiece of craggy rock and glassy sheen.
Amidst all this technological wizardry, it mustn’t be forgotten how strong a directorial debut this is. The phrase ‘Hitchcockian’ is overused, but Ex Machina really is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s taut psychological thrillers. Garland leads you down a precarious path with unexpected results and his storytelling ability shines through. This isn’t a mind-blowing film, but it’s clever and entertaining, livened by exciting performances from the three central actors. All three are rising stars, but Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander truly stand out here. Their work together in Anna Karenina was heart-wrenching and they bring that chemistry into this different genre with a completely different dynamic.
Alex Garland is already an excellent screenwriter and now reveals himself to be a hugely promising director. Ex Machina is small in characters and locations but big in style. This expertly executed thriller is well worth a watch.