Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are set to become household names when Star Wars: The Force Awakens rolls into town in December, but before then the pair can be seen in Ex Machina, a far more esoteric brand of sci-fi.
Gleeson is Caleb, a jobbing coder at the world’s most popular search engine (it’s not Google, but you get the idea). To his delight, he wins an office draw to spend a week at the remote home of the company’s CEO, programming wizard Nathan (he’s not Mark Zuckerberg, but you get the idea), played by man of the moment Isaac, sporting a beard and glasses combo that gives him the appearance of some sort of an Islamic hipster. Nathan isn’t quite what Caleb expected; he’s a loner who spends his evenings drinking himself into a solo stupor, and has the social awkardness of someone more comfortable around machines than men. Spending a week with your boss sounds like most employees’ idea of hell, but Caleb is fascinated with his idol’s work.
Nathan reveals his reason for inviting one of his underlings into his expensive techno man-cave - he’s developed an artificial intelligence and wants Caleb to be the guinea pig in a ‘Turing’ test to establish whether the AI has become sentient. To Caleb’s surprise and pleasure, said AI is no less than Ava, a female robot, with the beautiful face of Scandinavian actress Alicia Vikander. Indulging in a series of conversations, Caleb and Ava develop an affectionate relationship, the latter divulging secrets about Nathan that Caleb finds troubling.
The film marks the directorial debut of British screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland and draws on elements we’ve seen in his work before; the dream vacation turned sour in his novel The Beach and the question of man’s right to create life explored in his screenplay adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ex Machina is low on originality, with plot developments as transparent as the walls of Nathan’s cyber-home, but it’s high on atmosphere and brooding tension. The three central characters are brought to life persuasively by Gleeson, Isaac and especially Vikander in the trickiest of the roles. Something of a robotic femme fatale, ala Sean Young’s Blade Runner cyborg, it’s easy to see why Caleb would fall for her charms. Isaac is wonderfully sleazy as the boss from hell, stabbing Caleb in the back with every falsely affectionate embrace. Gleeson has the everyman type down pat at this point, and no longer resides in his father’s hefty shadow.
Combining modern technological concerns with a retro ‘70s sci-fi aesthetic gives Ex Machina a timeless quality that means it should be viewable a decade from now without losing any of its appeal. Playing out like an adaptation of some newly discovered Isaac Asimov novel, Garland’s film is intelligent without being heady, and should satisfy hardcore sci-fi buffs and casual viewers alike.
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