Reviews | Written by Peter Turner 21/01/2015



If you only see one science fiction film in 2015 that stars both Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, it's probably going to be set in a galaxy far, far away and be out just in time for Christmas. However, if you want a sneak preview of what this pair can do together - something most likely infinitely smarter than Star Wars - then Ex Machina is an early 2015 must-see.

Jettisoning Star Wars’ style and wild adventures with all manner of wonderful creatures on countless different planets, Ex Machina is a different beast altogether. With all except a few scenes being set in a single building on an isolated and remote location (on our very own planet Earth), this is incredibly grounded and believable science fiction. Gifted coder Caleb (Gleeson) is plucked from his office job at the world's number one search engine, Bluebook, and whisked away by helicopter for seven days spent at the mysterious hideaway of Bluebook's genius, reclusive and enigmatic founder Nathan (Isaac).

Told he is the winner of a once in a lifetime competition, Caleb is thrust into the middle of Nathan's latest and greatest experiment; creating Artificial Intelligence like never before. Caleb is assigned the task of questioning and conversing with Ava (Vikander), an incredibly intelligent robot with the face of a human woman but the body of a sophisticated humanoid machine. Over the seven days of his stay, Caleb will come to question the motivations and ethics of Nathan, the man pulling all the strings.

Not content with writing perfect modern novel The Beach, one of the greatest horror films of the 21st century with 28 Days Later, and dabbling in huge concept science fiction before by writing Sunshine, Alex Garland now adds directing to his already staggering CV. With a reasonably low budget, a few characters played by actors on the cusp of mega-stardom, and a winning premise, Garland has crafted an astounding cinematic debut. From music to production design, script to performances, Ex Machina is an almost perfectly formed puzzle.

Wasting no time at all, Ex Machina gets straight into the action. Not the action of adventure and danger, but riveting character interplay instead. Nathan and Caleb are both incredibly smart men and Garland gets them on screen together almost immediately. Their conversations about Ava crackle with energy and intelligence, quick and confidently delivered without generally leaving the layman behind. They are grappling with big ideas but Garland keeps things relatable and grounded, without over-simplifying issues or patronising his audience. It is clear from the start that Nathan is eccentric and Caleb is smart enough to see that he may not be trustworthy, but even though the story may seem to be going in predictable directions, it still manages to dazzle with its series of revelations in the final act.

While Oscar Isaac is wonderfully ambiguous for much of the film, Domhnall Gleeson excels as the innocent who may be out of his depth. However, blowing both these future Star Wars stars out of orbit is Alicia Vikander as Ava. Mo-capped and aided by some excellent sound design and special effects, much of her performance is all in her face and voice. She is the wild card in the film; thrilling and unexpectedly sensual in her interactions with Caleb, and unreadable and mysterious enough to shake the story up unforgettably by the finale.

Garland also uses his twisty-turny techno-thriller to explore some tasty themes. The obvious concerns with the future of AI and the ethics of playing God with giving machines consciousness is brilliantly coupled with an increasingly feminist agenda as the films goes on. Nathan's use of data cunningly and secretively stolen from his search engine's users (i.e. pretty much all of us) is also a frighteningly prescient notion that should be a warning to us all.

With these vital ideas acting as a throbbing pulse through the film, Ex Machina is an exciting and often challenging watch. Garland has surrounded himself with an expert team, meaning the film is gorgeous to watch, despite its limited locations. Its look and its sounds are essential to its gripping tale of men and machines. Compelling, claustrophobic, cutting edge and clever, Ex Machina is as smart and satisfying as science fiction gets.

Expected Rating: 8 out of 10

Actual Rating:


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