Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaacs
Plot: Nathan (Isaacs) invites an employee (Gleeson) to his isolated retreat to test whether his AI creation (Vikander) is self-aware or not.
I have been looking forward to his movie for a long time. This story has been done before; in fact, 2014-2015 seems to be imploding with the amount of robot and artificial intelligence stories at the moment. However, there was something a little more confident in Ex_Machina’s premise. Age of Ultron dressed its rogue robot story up with action and wit, Chappie was too interested in the humanity of its story to question ethics and Robocop’s remake was… well, crap. Ex_Machina wasn’t prepared to hide its topic behind explosions and jokes; the aim here is to question and explore the debate of how real can AI be. And there is something comforting about slipping into a movie that cuts through the smoke and mirrors of traditional cinema and gets right to the meat of its subject.
Not that Ex_Machine is a movie we would equate with comforting. In fact, at times, this film is surprisingly skin-crawling. Garland may be new to directing, but as a screen-writer, he has an impressive résumé. He has been behind movies with claustrophobic tendencies for most of his career (Dredd, Sunshine), and here, he ups his game to create an unsettling atmosphere. The eccentric billionaire Nathan has a technologically advanced mountain resort and somehow, despite its brilliance, it becomes a rather creepy location for this story. I remember a time when audiences were worried that the progress of technology was killing the Gothic genre. Most victims of the stereotypical Dracula or zombie can easily escape with the use of a quick telephone call. However, Garland’s future proves that a little imagination can turn futuristic settings into something just as dangerous as Victorian London. Nathan’s fortress can either be his personal weaponry (he controls the events through CCTV, hidden microphones and key cards), or his downfall. Blackouts lock characters in rooms and turn the cards, so the power struggle between the three leads is constantly shifting. It is not just the setting, but the subject. As Caleb interviews Ava, the AI creation, we feel the direction weighing down on the viewer, an unknown sensation of dread hovering around the corners of the story. Sometimes it is the sombre soundtrack; other times, it is the length of time Garland would hold a shot. Certain moments are terrifyingly horrific, like Caleb trapped in a room with a robot peeling its skin from itself or a particularly gruesome late-act murder. It makes it even more surprisingly that Garland is able to land a few well-timed jokes. Look out for one of the funniest dance moments of 2014.
Seeing as Garland wants a less-is-more approach to his story, it lands on the three leads to nail their performances. Without them, the story would crumble around itself. Alicia Vikander emerges as the star of the show. There is a reason up and coming mega-star Isaacs and the reliable Gleeson are dropped when it comes to promotional pictures of Ex_Machina: Vikander is the reason to check out this movie. Visually, she is miles above most movie robots. Despite her only human features being her face and hands, Ava is more human than more recent AI creations. She is balanced perfectly, her more robotic tendencies coming across with the sound of her moving across a room, but Vikander making good use of what body parts she is allowed to act with. To steal Ava’s own words, Vikander is brilliant at using ‘micro-expressions’ to convey her “emotions”. She can hold a scene, simply because we are amazed at her acting capabilities. The small drop of a smile as Caleb talks about a sore subject. The puppy dog eyes as she contemplates her own mortality. She becomes the most human thing about this movie, captivating until the very end. This becomes the movie’s success, but also sadly its downfall. Simply put, she out-acts the other two. I don’t want to blame Oscar Isaac for this, as he is as powerful a screen presence as ever. He just doesn’t really convince as a recluse. He is that little bit too charismatic to come across as a man separated from society, tinkering away at his experiments. It was almost as if Garland wanted Oscar Isaacs to be Oscar Isaacs rather than the character. Even more distracting is Domnhall Gleeson. His character is a bit of blank slate, a narrative device to get the story working, but a better actor would have been an improvement here. Gleeson can act… hell, he was recommended for Doctor Who last year… but I could never get over the impression that he was trying too hard to get the American accent. He never quite emoted as much as you wanted him to, which made the interview scenes between him and Vikander a little stilted. Sadly, it is that flat note which means that Ex_Machina doesn’t quite end up as prominent as you want it to. It is a juicy Sci-Fi thriller, but nothing that will set the world on fire.
Final Verdict: The topic is there and Vikander is excellent as Ava, the AI at the centre of the story, but the rest of the movie can’t keep up with her.