By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
It seems we are firmly in the season of Alan Turing. But while Benedict Cumberbatch is off picking up awards for his imitation of the man, Alex Garland’s directorial debut is interested in the ideas. Taking the famous Turing test that sets out what a machine has to do to demonstrate consciousness, Garland’s paranoid slice of future phobia is a slick and engaging thriller that can’t quite reach the cerebral heights it shoots for.
Garland is no science fiction novice. A novelist turned accomplished screenwriter; he steps comfortably behind the lens after an impressive decade scripting the likes of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. In his best work, he excels at creating tightly contained environments. Within these, the plot builds up a head of steam bouncing off walls that gradually close in over the length of the film. He takes a similar approach in Ex Machina setting practically the entire story in a remote estate/research facility that doesn’t even have direct air access, never mind a road.
The property in question belongs to Nathan, the sinister version of Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin. Nathan, played with a disconcerting mix of frat boy smarm and icy calculation by Oscar Isaac, created Bluebook, the world’s preeminent search engine. He’s an almost impossible to reach recluse, living up in the hills where he works away in enough secrecy to keep conspiracy theorists in business for the foreseeable future.
Into this world comes Domhnall Gleeson’s computer programmer, Caleb. Gleeson, playing another one of his strangely compelling awkward beta males, is the winner of a competition to spend a week with Nathan. But this is no bro hang out, as much as Nathan occasionally talks as if it is. Caleb’s been picked to participate in an experiment that might just change the future of humanity.
With the basics established in a helicopter flight over landscapes shot to make the local tourist office salivate with delight, Ex Machina wastes no time creating a sense of unease. Caleb is dropped in a field and told to follow a river to Nathan’s house. On arrival at the facility, no one meets him. He wanders through high end furnishings alone until Nathan finally appears starting what will become a series of moves and countermoves.
Built on shifting sands, Ex Machina tries hard to make you question everything. Sure, Nathan seems like a fun time guy in bursts, but he’s almost transparently devious. Scheming away, he chugs beers and professes excitement at the prospect of two guys hanging out. Then in the next breath he’s announcing the creation of artificial intelligence and the true intention of the week. Caleb is to engage with the machine to see if he thinks it possesses consciousness.
Calling it an it goes too far. The machine is named Ava and looks remarkably like Alicia Vikander, or at least a humanoid robot with Vikander’s face attached. Her sex is vital to the plot. Caleb, soon drawn to Ava, pushes Nathan on his decision to give a machine sexuality. Cue conversations on the nature of humanity and the importance sex plays in this. It just about works but there’s an inescapable feeling of cheap titillation in the air. It’s Ava who does the disrobing, just as Nathan’s housekeeper wanders around in skimpy dresses, dancing in a sexually provocative manner. Funnily enough, the men remain clothed.
As Caleb moves through his conversations/experiments with Ava and Nathan watches on voyeuristically, Garland laces false leads all over the shop. He pulls attention one way and shifts it back suddenly, determined to keep the final reveal a mystery until the last. Just when you think he might be heading down one road, the course abruptly alters and Ex Machina’s cruising down an entirely different highway. As an exercise in taut plotting, it’s impressive.
While this is happening, Garland presents a pretty nature versus technology slide show in the background. Rob Hardy’s cinematography captures the smooth surfaces and shiny objects in his luxury house, comparing it with an empty laboratory feel in the darker reaches of the property. There’s also plenty of opportunity to bask in the David Attenborough environment all around them. Nathan and Caleb look out on clean green forests and down beers next to dark blue babbling brooks. The changing shapes and rich textures of their natural surroundings make for an interesting contrast with the sleeker, but ultimately less interesting imagery inside.
It’s as the film wears on that the problem comes; specifically Garland’s big idea which isn’t big enough. After setting up Ex Machina to delve into the quandaries posed by the creation of artificial life, he pulls up short. The screenplay can’t focus on the bigger goal, choosing instead to weave a tight, twisting path through a conventional plotline. Ava embodies this, turning from an experiment that could change our very perception of life into a puzzle box to be solved.
When the truth finally dawns on Caleb, it’s both a satisfying resolution to the mystery and a disappointingly empty answer to the overarching question posed at the start. As enjoyable as it might be to follow the breadcrumb trail Garland lays down, it simply doesn’t matter if Ava is capable of true consciousness or not.
Nathan sets Caleb up with an altered version of the Turing test to see if Ava passes. Ex Machina ultimately fails its own equivalent. It wants to be thought-provoking science fiction, using the form to look ahead at where we might go and how we might change as a result, but it doesn’t convince. This is slick and attractive entertainment, dazzling briefly as Garland finally reveals his hand. When the glare fades, all that’s left is a self-contained thriller pretending to be more.
Ex Machina is in cinemas from Friday 23rd January