Whenever I think back to school, IT lessons (using computers to embarrassingly old to mention) still make me laugh above all else. Every now and again, you’d always have someone proclaim a frustrated variation on “it’s not my fault, it’s the computers, they’re just wrong!” to imply that the tools haven’t merely done as instructed by their users. However, you should remember that an artificial mind only knows exactly what you tell it, no more, no less. Take a moment to consider and be thankful for that. If your computer really could conscientiously judge you and act upon it how would it really act towards you? What would it be like to create something that hates you?
The young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson – About Time, Unbroken) wins his workplace lottery to spend a week with reclusive genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac –Sucker Punch, Inside Llewyn Davies) at his remote mountain home only to discover that the competition was a cover. He’s really been selected to assess Nathan’s secretly created artificial intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander - Anna Karenina, The Fifth Estate) to determine if she truly has achieved self-aware consciousness.
Computers works fast and so does Ex Machina; we spend mere seconds with Caleb in the real world before he’s on a helicopter to the God-knows-what mountain range and a home that makes all of Grand Designs look like council flats. Both the surrounding exteriors and physical interiors are quite stunning and fantastically merged throughout, with the walls built into rock faces and abundant glass paneling. It creates the visual feeling of becoming a spectator in reality and aptly amplifies Caleb’s feelings of plunging through the rabbit hole into an ever increasing world on questioning everything around him. The long acclaimed screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) has made a career out of delivering smart and satirical reflections on society, but here in his directorial debut, he takes things to a whole new level of sophistication. Ex Machina takes unnerving levels of pleasure in flipping everything on its head again and again as Caleb’s perceptions of the world around him are continually challenged, leaving him paranoid and unsure who to trust. In a series of gorgeously red-lit power cuts, Ava implies that Nathan is lying to Caleb about everything and that she must help him escape. Yet for every move, there’s a countermove as Nathan questions if she’s only pretending to like him for her own agenda, that the artificial Ava is just as much a lying schemer as they are. All manner of psychological ideals in the process of determining if Ava has her own emotions are covered with elegant intelligence between Nathan and Caleb, but without ever turning into TED lecture. Notions such as why she’s been given a concept of sexuality or how out of the box you have to look determine whether feelings are simulated rather than originated. Also, there’s some fantastic commentary on how we, as a society, interact with data and information and how that could be used to manipulate us. The core processor concept is simple enough for a child to understand yet handled with an unparalleled adult approach.
Yet for all the deep scientific morality Ex Machina airs enough distraction to never feel like it’s taking itself too seriously centring on the perplexing nature of Nathan’s character. Both we and Caleb are expecting some sort of Stephen Hawking meets The Matrix’s Architect for the man behind the imaginary “super-Google” equivalent based on code he wrote at the age of 13. What we get is a laid-back sweaty alcoholic more worried about having a good beer & bro down than any level of technical discussion. It’s almost surprising that when he commissioned his mega-home/research facility to be built, he didn’t add his own branch of Hooters. For every moment of insightful revelation, there’s foray into the daft to balance it out from reflections on the spiritual blow jobs of Ghostbusters or Austin Powers level dance sequence interjections. It all excellently takes the edge of the darker themes without dampening their impact. Like much of Garland’s work, there’s a heavy presence and great utilisation of claustrophobia as Caleb is brought to life in the subterranean tech facility with no windows, more cameras than Big Brother and the mother of all: non-disclosure agreements. Even Caleb’s interactions with Ava take place via prison cell styled glass screens painting a curious reverse Silence of the Lambs situation. As questions of affections develop between the subject and tester, Caleb’s dreams take a turn for the trippy. This may be the one place that Ex Machina pushes things too far as they detract from the more grounded nature of its story.
For all accounts, this is a three-person show in outstanding form. The golden joystick goes to Vikander for her incredible depiction of Ava. Her every move feels precise, measured, and calculated as if our reality is so slow she has time to watch (the good half) of the Terminator saga in between sentences. She conveys a wonderful mixture of strength and innocence as she faces the prospect of being taken offline with even some good feministic ideals coming across. Oscar Isaac has really come out of nowhere these last 12 months to become a major player in Hollywood (snapped up for key roles in both Star Wars and X-Men franchises), and this is exactly the kind of performance that reminds you why.
2015 is set to be a year dominated by big US blockbuster science fiction. Ex Machina is the plucky little Brit politely tugging their coat strings before laying a roundhouse kick across their face with how much smarter it can be with a fraction of their budget. A thinking man’s I Robot with an ending that will have you uninstalling Siri from your smart phone. A tense suspense thrilling cerebral debut from a now outstanding director, that’s already looking like it could be the British Film of the Year, a masterwork of Actual Intelligence.
Recommended for fans of smart science fiction and thriller films, those looking for the style and skills of Blade Runner in a more modern format and anyone still haunted by how bad Spielberg’s AI was.