By Thomas Simpson
Cinema has a fascination with artificial intelligence. Storytellers often warn us it’s inevitable that self-aware machines will take over the world. This year has been no different with Avengers: Age of Ultron and the upcoming Terminator: Genysis highlighting the dangers that come with mankind’s meddling. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores the same themes albeit with less spectacle and budget.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working for search engine company, Bluebook. He is selected by the organization to visit its CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded residence. Caleb is unsure as to what is in store and is quickly brought up to speed by Nathan who lives alone, with exception of his housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).
Nathan explains that he has created an android that he’s named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He wants Nathan to interact with the machine and judge whether she is capable of independent consciousness. Caleb and the Ava quickly build up a rapport, much like Caleb has with Nathan. Ava warns her new friend that her creator is not the man he appears to be, a discovery that will soon test Caleb’s loyalties.
Alex Garland makes his directorial debut here, bringing his own script to life. What he has created is an intelligent and stripped back character driven Sci-fi. The cast is small with minimal sets and very impressive CGI. The isolated compound gives a real sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment, but who is the real prisoner here? Ava is the one locked up but is Caleb any less confined just because he has access to more rooms? Nathan himself is in self-exile with the mysterious Kyoko offering a glimpse into Nathan’s troubled psyche.
Nathan is more complex than the mad scientist trope would suggest. He spends his days virtually alone, consumed by his work and probable alcoholism. He demonstrates an almost Jekyll and Hyde persona. Isolated from civilization, he craves the male bonding that Caleb’s presence offers. The other side of him reveals a malicious and controlling figure with little regard for basic morals.
A modern day Victor Frankenstein, Nathan has created life. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ava exhibits a childlike innocence and curiosity. She doesn’t have green skin and bolts in her neck, instead she’s attractive, played as brilliantly adorable by Vikander. Like Nathan, Ava appears to crave Caleb’s friendship. Vikander’s performance is alluring and unknowingly seductive which allows us to emotionally invest in her.
Garland slowly pulls back the layers, carefully maneuvering his characters through a mousetrap before setting up a horrifying revelation. It may be a twist you see coming, however it permits such depth that it will stay with you long after the credits roll. A potential candidate for film of the year.
Thomas Simpson is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter:@Simmy41.