Duration 108 mins
Review: Alex Griffin
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is a sharp and seductive sci-fi thriller.
“You can’t trust Nathan,” whispers Alicia Vikander’s siren-esque cyborg Ava. “You can’t trust anything he says”.
Writer Alex Garland’s first directorial endeavour is a strikingly magnetic gaze into an uncertain future, through the deepest recesses of ourselves. Over the course of its 108 minutes, Ex Machina successfully explores an engaging combination of themes: what it means to human, to be consciously alive, the exploration of sexuality, projection and objectification. Garland wraps it up in a confidently stylish aesthetic that perfectly balances sophisticated glossy visuals with effective minimalism.
We are introduced to Domhall Gleeson’s Caleb: techno-geek and seemingly all round nice guy on his way to spend a week at his employer’s subterranean complex,
located in geographical remoteness, accessible only from the air. There are echoes of Jurassic Park, as the chopper pans across an expanse of vegetation, towards a
secure compound. There is secrecy; a suggestion that something has been created and its consequences are not yet known. There is a need to control but an
underlying sensation of powerlessness. There is the faint yet unavoidable hint of something sinister.
Soon enough we discover exactly what Nathan, an almost unrecognisable Oscar Isaac, has been developing; his masterwork, an A.I... an advanced robot that walks,
talks, feels and for the most part, looks like a human woman. The plan is for Caleb to systematically test ‘Ava’ to see if she passes the threshold for self awareness.
Subsequently Caleb engages her in a number of sessions that take the form of observed conversations within a room divided by a glass partition.
The film shares its DNA with a tradition of intelligent science fiction that explores the hidden depths of human nature through the concept of the artificial.
Central to this is the complexity of male and female interaction. At one point Caleb asks Nathan why he chose to gender his creation. The answer is that to be fully
human implies the presence of sexuality, an element his machine must therefore embody. Like Scarlett Johanssen in Jonathan Glazier’s Under The Skin, Vikander’s
mesmerising Android perceives Caleb’s sexually engaged micro-responses through waves of synthetic subliminal seduction.
Garland takes this further into the realm of the male gaze, the objectification of the female subject. Caleb watches Ava on camera at night, voyeuristic as she moves
around her room. or just lies still. At points I found myself thinking of Natalie Portman and wondering whether she would have been even more captivating, but
Vikander can only be praised for her attention to movement and tone, as she embodies the chrome contours of Ava’s body completely.
The notion of what makes something consciously aware and crucially ‘human’ plays out in the dynamic between the three leads (although significantly its never truly
defined). Not since Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm has there been a perfectly balanced triumvirate of performance. There are moments when the seemingly tyrannical
Nathan seems less human, devoid of empathy and blatantly cruel in comparison to Ava who exudes a degree of vulnerability and fragility.
Fundamentally the boundaries are blurred. Visibility is clouded, there is a distrust around intention, no one is quite what they appear to be. As with Blade Runner, from
which Ex Machina is most closely descended, the subject becomes unsure of his humanity, slicing through flesh looking for indicators of mechanical construction
whilst similarly becoming fixated on whether Ava’s attraction is genuine or the work of some sophisticated programming (the truth is much more).
There is a deliberate blending of synthetic and organic which is unexplainably satisfying. The outside word of lush forest, glacial water and crisp sunlight is pulsing and vital. It provides the space for the rebirth metaphor and holds Ava’s cybernetic body without tension. Caleb travels eagerly into this wilderness Heart of Darkness, hungry to discover the secret endeavours of the aggressively intense Colonel Kurtz-like Nathan. Neither have perceived the true consequences; ‘the horror’ of what has been spawned.
In conclusion, the film is captivatingly stylish and crucially intellectual cinema. Alex Garland’s debut behind the camera is sexy and assured, with enough to effect the
feeling of being unsettled. Performance and direction are tight and polished. Ex Machina pushes into a reality which has been previously explored, but manages to
retain its own identity and aesthetic. It is life - but not as we know it.