Alex Garland, frequent Danny Boyle collaborator and writer of The Beach and 28 Days Later, has started his own directing career on fine form with Ex-Machina.
Although ostensibly a hard sci-fi exploration of the nature of artificial intelligence, the film recalls David Fincher’s recent thrillers exploring the struggle for power within relationships as much as it does Isaac Asimov (Alicia Vikander’s chilly, ambiguous turn as Ava, the robot who may or may not be artificially intelligent particularly brings to mind Rosamund Pike’s fantastic performance in Gone Girl). Also, in typical Fincher style, the male character’s insecurities and misogyny drive the plot as much as its more sci-fi themes. The film even looks like Fincher’s work with its precise cinematography and glowing use of colour, there’s little of the anarchic psychedellica of Boyle’s foray into the genre, Sunshine.
Future Star Wars cast members Oscar Isaac (Inside Llweyn Davis) and Domanhall Gleeson (seen in last year’s underrated Frank) play respectively Nathan – the genius inventor of Ava and the world’s most popular search engine Blue Book – and Caleb, a talented coder from Blue Book’s offices who wins a competition to conduct a Turing test (a means of determining whether a computer is capable of independent thought) on Nathan’s creation. Both actors give strong performances that cement their future megastar status, but it is Vikander who steals the show, successfully conveying both deep emotion and unsettling artificiality that keeps the audience guessing up to the final scene.
With big budget sci-fi currently dominated by expansive superhero series and attempts to construct franchises, Ex Machina is a refreshing , modern take on classic science fiction themes harking back to Frankenstein. Although not perfect (Garland occasionally allows uncomfortable B-movie tropes to surface) the film shows that mid budget film-making can produce excellent, thematically rich results.
Images: Universal Pictures