Film Review | Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander plays a subtle seduction game in a worthwhile sci-fi thriller from Alex Garland. 

All too human: Alicia Vikander is more than just a robot in Alex Garland’s high-concept science-fiction thriller
All too human: Alicia Vikander is more than just a robot in Alex Garland’s high-concept science-fiction thriller

We’ve always been obsessed with the notion of creating life, because once we’ve cracked that particular chestnut, it means we get to behave like gods. From the Ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion (transposed into the modern era as My Fair Lady) to Frankenstein and Blade Runner, the desires and problems associated with this distinctly human preoccupation have serves as ample grist for the storytelling mill across several generations.

Now comes novelist-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) with his own take on the Artificial Intelligence Problem. Though it’s not so much ‘his own take’ as ‘stylish re-hash of ideas previously explored by science fiction stalwarts’, the claustrophobic thriller is certainly worth a look in, helped as it is by impeccable production design and an inspired undercurrent of humour.

When the young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) scores the opportunity to spend a week with the boss of the largest internet company in the world, he believes it’ll be a breakthrough in his career. Things get a bit strange, however, when the company’s CEO, the reclusive Nathan (Oscar Isaac) offers him the chance to participate in a unique experiment.


It turns out that Nathan has been cultivating the world’s first example of bona fide artificial intelligence, and placing in the body of a robot girl he christens Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he now needs Caleb to determine just how close to human she is. But as the lines between what is engineered and what is sentient begin to blur, Caleb grows more and more suspicious of Nathan’s ultimate plan.  

On script level, Ex Machina doesn’t really contribute anything new to the cinematic conversation on artifical intelligence: apart from the examples mentioned above, similar ground has been covered thoroughly by the likes of 2001: Space Odyssey and even the anime Ghost in Shell. But the technical accomplishment that is Ava – aided by an impeccably understated performance from rising-star Swedish actress Alicia Vikander – coupled with the tasteful but glacial surroundings of Nathan’s secluded abode, offer a seductive and suspenseful lead-in into Garland’s universe, allowing us to enjoy its high-concept trappings as a thriller first and foremost.

On-point performances from all three lead actors ensure that we’re sold on the heightened reality of it all, though Gleeson does a bit of a re-hash of his ‘hapless geek’ routine from last year’s Frank. But a word about Isaac’s Nathan. A fascinating creation in his own right – with both Garland and Isaac pulling their creative weight to bring him to fruition – he’s an amusingly contemporary take on the mad scientist trope.

A young technological entrepreneur in the vein of Mark Zuckerberg – his innovation is basically a variant of Google, which he amorally exploits to craft his AI prototypes – when not breaking new ground in the scientific community, he uses his only-reachable-by-helicopter estate as a place to get trashed on beer and vodka, putting paid to the notion that all millenials are essentially overgrown children. His awkward attempts at chumminess with Caleb are perfect lead-ins to his menacing side, and as he is wont to do, Isaac endows the character with a messy humanity.

In a lot of ways this is also a ‘post-Under the Skin’ sci-fi movie, with the male gaze being critiqued for all its worth, and Ava’s journey made to be as important as that of its morally questionable male counterparts. Garland’s film – a directorial debut – doesn’t have the intensity of Jonathan Glazer’s razor-sharp critical darling, but as has been the case for Garland’s output (both literary and cinematic), he manages a healthy balancing act between pulp storytelling and loftier thematic ambitions.

A technological morality fable worth delving into.

Ex Machina will be showing at St James Cavalier Cinema, Valletta on April 4 at 15:00 and April 12 at 20:00

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