"One day the A.I.'s are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction."
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer for the internet search engine company BlueBook who has just won a competition to spend a week with the founder of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his secluded home. Upon his arrival Caleb discovers that the house is in fact a research laboratory and he is needed for the final part of testing Nathan’s latest creation, artificial intelligence. After meeting Eva (Alicia Vikander), the robot in question, the line begins to blur for Caleb of what being alive and conscious truly means as he starts to fall down a rabbit hole of intrigue surrounding Nathan’s research and Eva’s creation.
This is the directorial debut for writer Alex Garland (most known for writing “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” for Danny Boyle) and his first outing in the director’s chair is quite admirable. He constructs a very beautiful looking film that uses both metaphor and visual language brilliantly to help weave it’s narrative (whether it be as subtle as a Jackson Pollock painting or the more obvious, but still effective, setting of the film (a high tech facility in the middle of a national park). Garland doesn’t rush with telling his story, slowly drawing the audience in, much like the character of Caleb, only revealing elements as they are needed to help intensify the intrigue and suspense surrounding the situation which is only elevated by the caliber of performance he manages to illicit from his cast.
Due to the small nature of the film, the performances of the piece are key and Domhnall Gleeson, who has become a force to be reckoned with as of late, delivers the anchoring performance of the film, providing the perfect straight man amongst all the insanity that surrounds him. The subtlety with which he delivers Caleb’s childlike wonder while simultaneously masking a deeper, darker side is what manages to ground a film that deals with some fairly heavy subject matter. Countering this is Oscar Isaac’s insanity as Nathan, an arrogant man whose hubris seems to get in the way of his social skills. Add some alcoholism to this and you’ve got a character that Isaac can really sink his teeth into, a conniving man who never lets the audience (or Caleb for that matter) get ahead of him. Alicia Vikander too delivers a brilliantly subtle performance as Ava, the A.I. central to the film. Vikander never goes the easy route of letting the robotic nature of her character inform her performance, instead injecting it with a true sense of innocence and genuine fear, which helps add to the overall mystery of the piece.
While the acting in “Ex Machina” is top notch, an actor is only as good as the script, and here lies the real trouble with the film. Much like most of Alex Garland’s work the film begins to fall apart in the third act. While it may not go to the extremes that we’ve seen him take to in the past (it doesn’t turn into a rape thriller like “28 Days Later” or go the murderer on the loose route that “Sunshine” took) it still seems like a third act that doesn’t match up with the rest of the film. Instead of exploring the ethical/moral scenarios that have been established in the film, it instead offers up a more generic, genre specific ending that leaves the audience with a somewhat hollow feeling as the end credits begin to roll.
That being said, “Ex Machina” still stands out as a solid directorial debut for Garland and with brilliant performances by it’s small cast to anchor it, the film serves as a well crafted, introspective sci-fi that will no doubt please fans of the genre.
7 out of 10.
Reviewed by Chris Swan