Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Ex Machina' (2015) directed by Alex Garland


Science fiction that ponders whether an artificial mind is truly conscious is hardly breaking new ground.  As far back as 1921 Karel ńĆapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) explored the idea of lifeforms that are almost human, but not quite.  Since then they've been a mainstay in all eras of cinema, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, through The Day The Earth Stood Still, up the modern day via stone cold classics like 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix and Her.

So what new angle does Alex Garland bring to this crowded field? Set in an unspecified near future, our protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a hotshot programmer working for competition crushing search engine BlueBook.  He wins a company lottery, his prize a week long visit to the home of the reclusive genius and company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan lives in isolation with his non-English speaking maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) in the beautiful Alaskan wilderness. His mostly underground home is ultra high-tech and tastefully decorated, looking like a nuclear bunker as designed by IKEA.  

Soon we learn the reason for such isolation.  Nathan has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, and her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Ava is intelligent, beautiful and ultraperceptive, yet also sheltered, childlike and naive.  Nathan quickly confesses that the reason for Caleb's visit isn't a holiday, he's to be part of an quasi-Turing test designed to evaluate Ava to conclude whether she's truly conscious.  The rest of the film revolves around a series of interviews between Caleb and Eva, as they open up to each other the film gradually reveals more about Ava, Nathan's ulterior motives and Caleb's true role in the experiment.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac)
I don't want to spoil too much, so I'm going to leave the plot there.  Much of Garland's screenplay is concerned with misdirection, sending both Caleb and ourselves down paranoid trains of thought while keeping 'the truth' in plain sight.  With a pared down cast of four (one of whom doesn't speak), the claustrophobic and increasingly sinister surroundings and the precise pace at which the film proceeds, the tension gradually ratchets up scene by scene as the truth is slowly unfurled.  

On a basic structural level, Ex Machina is a series of philosophical conversations in confined spaces.  Consequently, though the film is beautifully shot by Rob Hardy, boasts deeply impressive production design, a great synth score and seamless special effects, it lives and dies on the quality of the actor's performances.  All are excellent, though Isaac's vaguely Steve Jobsian tech guru stands out.   The programming geek stereotype is completely absent and with his shaved head and masculine beard he looks a bit like Russell Crowe's Noah, the epitome of the dirt-under-the-fingernails mythic paternal figure.  Isaac continually finds some fascinating new angle on Nathan, or fresh mood in each scene, both actor and character taking a sadistic pleasure in constantly pulling the rug out from underneath us.

Good as Isaac is, the true star of Ex Machina is Alicia Vikander's Ava.  A trained ballerina, Vikander moves with inhuman grace.  She's so subtle in this that it's difficult to pin down individual moments; more that every action is millimetre precise, adding up to a queasy combination of sexuality and uncanny valley 'wrongness'.  Ava is intentionally designed to express sexuality, but some dark thing twinges in your brain when you realise you're turned on by a creature whose skin is a metallic lattice and whose robot guts you see whirring away in her belly.

Ava (Alicia Vikander)
Learning to love (and lust) for this bundle of fibre-optics, carbon fibre and rubber skin is at the heart of Ex Machina,  which treats its subject matter as a sober examination of what it will mean to live in a world where beings like Ava exist.  Thing is, though this is all very well conveyed, it's not exactly breaking fresh ground.  It's been more than thirty years since Blade Runner and though the world has seen a quantum leap in technology, the central questions of Ex Machina are almost identical to what Roy Batty and Rick Deckard violently debated on the rainy roof of the Bradbury Building.

Even the aesthetics are a bit familiar; Caradog James' excellent and underrated The Machine did the beautiful translucent robot girl (who, bizarrely, was also named Ava) thing a year ago, and the cosy pastel and natural materials set design is strongly reminiscent of Her.  This isn't to say that there's anything remotely lazy here, just that the visual punch of Ava is slightly dulled if you've seen a robot sci-fi film in the last ten years or so.  

Ex Machina finally breaks fresh ground when it eventually reveals itself not as a robot philosophy film, but as feminist science fiction.  As we explore Ava's humanity, both audience and characters objectify her.  As she is an object, this provides a useful path into a thorny subject. As we learn more about her creator, we come to understand Ava as a sex slave; most notably when Nathan proudly explains the myriad features of her robot vagina.   Later developments underline the idea the female body as equipment for men to use, the film gradually becoming less about the ethics of artificial intelligence and more about emancipatory feminist ideology.

That Ex Machina looks for all the world like it's about one thing, yet secretly turns out to be about something completely different feels pleasantly appropriate given the film as a whole. I really hope this finds an audience: it's got some really striking images, a bevy of fascinating performative tics and an absolute humdinger of an ending.  That intellectual, firmly adult science fiction films like this can be made gives me the warm fuzzies.  I hope it does well. It deserves to.

★★★★

Ex Machina is released 23 January in the UK, 10 April in the US.

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