Smart, skilfully constructed sci-fi from Alex Garland featuring Alicia Vikander
Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut is an unsettling, teasing and thought-provoking sci-fi, centred around artificial intelligence. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a work competition to fly to his CEO’s home to take part in a research experiment, what happens there leads him to question his own mortality and morals. On arrival, Caleb is greeted by the solitary Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his grand creation, a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
All the performances are impressive. Gleeson convinces as a desperate-to-please, ambitious young coder. Isaac’s difficult-to-read, drunken, pumped-up mad scientist is disquieting and Vikander excels in a demure and shifting role.
Musicians Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury employ what sounds like an amplified heartbeat each time Caleb and Ava meet for one of their Turing test-inspired sessions. It adds to the ominous atmosphere and neatly points to Ava’s transformative state-of-being and increasing self-awareness. Held in a zoo-like enclosure, Ava’s qualities are selfishly mishandled by her owner, prompting a struggle for survival that plays out in an exquisitely unpredictable manner.
This battle of the sexes is expertly channelled through dramatic, witty and provocative discussion. The visual inventiveness and futuristic surroundings of Nathan’s eerie Alaskan residence / laboratory (actually Norwegian buildings designed by Jensen & Skodvin) add to the Alice in Wonderland-like vibe, with the lush greens of the wilderness merging with modern technology to form a strange new world.
Ex Machina blends both literary horror and fantasy elements together wonderfully. There are traces of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Nathan’s character, not to mention the huge influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is the best kind of sci-fi: smart, accessible, and ripe with relevant concerns about data collection in the internet age, and how it is exploited to manipulate the user.
General release from Fri 23 Jan.