Making the leap into the directorial chair has scuppered many respected figures within the film industry. Last year, Wally Pfister made the transition from cinematographer to director with Transcendence, a science fiction film that was universally panned. This year, we see Alex Garland, the writer of films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, make a similar jump with his debut directorial feature, Ex Machina.
Opening with a shot of Dohmnall Gleeson’s character Caleb receiving what could almost be a piece of spam email, it quickly becomes clear that he and his colleagues are a lot more excited about this than you and I might be. We discover that he has in fact won the opportunity to go and spend a week in at the house of his companies CEO, Nathan, (Oscar Issac) who lives as a recluse in the mountains. What initially seems to be a bonding exercise quickly takes a turn, as we learn Nathan has been building an artificial intelligence and Caleb is really there in order to perform the Turing Test on said intelligence, Ava. Sadly, it is not even as simple as this as Caleb begins to feel affectionate to Ava and suspect that Nathan is not telling him the whole story.
What this gives you is not something particularly new. The idea of AI has been explored in science fiction time after time and none of the ideas here pull away from that tradition. However, it is well enough done that it doesn’t really matter. The story is nearly entirely contained within the futuristic house of Nathan, which despite being in this incredibly beautiful landscape, from the start feels more like a prison. Caleb is handed a key card which only grants him access to certain rooms, while his bedroom has no windows and he isn’t allowed to use the phone. On top of that, Nathan requires him to sign an NDA, which essentially forbids him from telling anyone anything about the place. All of this creates a claustrophobic feel. Caleb is essentially trapped, even if it takes him a while to figure out the exact repercussions of that.
This isn’t aided by the fact Nathan screams ‘bad guy’ from the second he steps onto the screen. Isaac is sporting a shaven head and a rather wonderful beard, all of which instantly raises your suspicions. He is also just a bit of an odd duck. He spends most of his nights drinking himself into an oblivion and his only human contact, outside of that of his AI, comes from Kyoko, an Asian maid who doesn’t speak English. Isaac stops this all becoming a bit pantomime though, with a strong performance. He insures Nathan is always unsettling, conducting conversations in a way that just don’t quite work as he quotes lines of Caleb’s back to him, but twists them in order to work with his own image. Those works to keep you on edge, as you can never quite figure out what this man actually wants.
Gleeson is also great, Isaac’s Star Wars colleague matches him beat for beat, but replaces the unsettling nature of Nathan, with the awkwardness of Caleb. Right from the start he feels like someone placed somewhere he is not meant to be and as he bonds with Ava, you get an insight of just who this character is and what exactly makes him tick. Which finally brings us onto Alicia Vikander, who is enjoying a good run at the moment with this and Testament of Youth. Her role essentially requires her to play half human and half robot. A turn that can’t be easy. However, she does it very well. Ava appears to learn as the film goes on, becoming less robotic and more human with every interaction she has with Caleb. However, the way Vikander moves insures you never forget that robotic. Her movements become almost too realistic, as if she has read how to do them from a book and not learnt them in the natural way that a human being does.
All of this comes together in a very good science fiction film. As mentioned it is not something you won’t have seen before and science fiction fans will recognise all the old tropes. However, when it is done this well that doesn’t become an issue, but rather a source of comfort. It makes this film feel like an old friend on the very first watch through and it is yet another example of the rebirth of traditional science fiction. Substitute the house for a space ship and this takes us back to the classic tale of a group of people going on an adventure to discover the unknown and Alex Garland has crafted a film that feels as exciting as those did the first time you saw them.