The question of what it means to be human has been mulled over in high-concept science fiction stories ever since Mary Shelley first dared to challenge the omnipotence of God in 1818. And while Ex Machina covers some of the same ground, using Frankenstein as a model for its darkly manipulative creator-creation relationship, first-time director Alex Garland also takes the idea a step further, updating the concept to tap into current fears about the potential of artificial intelligence and the fate of humanity to create this taut, absorbing and powerful psychological thriller.
Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a slightly geeky coder who wins a competition to spend of week residing with the reclusive owner (Oscar Isaac) of the world’s largest search engine. Yet when he arrives at the super-modern, super-isolated glacial mansion, Caleb discovers that he hasn’t just been invited to sample the mountain air or his boss’s finest vodka but also to conduct a variation of the Turing Test on an advanced AI (Alicia Vikander’s Ava) that looks strikingly human.
A densely-packed script tackles challenging scientific and philosophical themes, such as the relationship between man and machine and the role of sexuality in human consciousness, but Garland keeps things compellingly cerebral throughout by confining the action to the sleekly claustrophobic interiors of Nathan’s high-tech compound, which recalls both The Shinning and 2001: A Space Odyssey with its eerie red-carpeted halls and computer controlled security system, evoking the mesmerising tension of early Kubrick.
There’s very little physical action to speak of, at least until the closing stages when the story verges into gory horror terrain, and the plot is instead powered by a series of intense conversation between Caleb, Ava and Nathan which Garland uses to repeatedly twist our perceptions of who these characters are and what they want in a way that is captivatingly unnerving.
Of course it might be less effective if it wasn’t so marvellously performed. Isaac’s elusive and calculating tech billionaire is an intense presence throughout, possessing the blind hubris inherent of a child prodigy as well as the pent-up aggression you’d expect of a ruthless businessman who pummels punchbags as a hangover cure. Vikander, too, is utterly convincing as an advanced automaton with her poised-yet-off-kilter body language perfectly contrasting the innocent curiosity with which she inflects her speech in a way that welcomes recollections of Sonny from I, Robot. Gleeson, meanwhile, is polite and suspicious in equal measure, his likeable everyman persona providing the prefect vessel for the audience to enter this disturbing and innovative world.
Ex Machina is a film that bravely poses big questions about the modern world and also dares to leave them unanswered with a story that is bound to provoke debate and would benefit from a second viewing. But it’s not just for inquisitive science buffs as Garland deftly boils down his dense material into a sharp, suspenseful thriller that is guaranteed to leave you breathless until long after the credits have rolled.
Runtime: 108 mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Horror; Released: 23 January 2015;
Director: Alex Garland; Writer: Alex Garland;
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno
Click here to watch the trailer for Ex Machina