Alex Garland was a novelist before he came to Hollywood. His first novel, The Beach, hit the shores of the silver screen before he did, adapted by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle. Given that film’s failure, one can understand why Garland chose to take the pen into his own hands moving forward, continuing to work with Boyle by providing screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, as well as Never Let Me Go and Dredd for the non-Boyle enthusiasts. As is so often the case with notable screenwriters, Garland has further taken his destiny into his own hands, taking over the director’s chair for the first time with Ex Machina, another in a line of high concept science fiction.
The setting of Ex Machina is a secluded compound on the edge of the world, the home of billionaire tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner and CEO of BlueBook, a clear Google analogue. Nathan has conducted a lottery, the winner of which would be flown to his house to spend the week with him. The film opens with that winner, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, sporting blonde hair and a convincing American accent), arriving at Nathan’s, quick to discover the true nature of his visit. Nathan has been experimenting with artificial intelligence, and has brought Caleb in to conduct a Turing Test of a sort with his new AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava have daily conversations separated by glass, and all the while Caleb begins to suspect that Nathan’s eccentric and at times erratic behavior are hiding darker intentions as his relationship with Ava grows more complex.
The design of the whole enterprise is quite impressive. Nathan’s compound is a cold, sterile and aggressively modern piece of architecture in the middle of nature, shielded from even the slightest influence of society. His creation has a human face and human hands and feet, but her arms and torso are transparent, revealing the machinery within alight with a soft blue glow, servos whirring as she moves. It is a closed system, controlled by locked doors and key cards, unmolested by the outside world held at bay by the barrier of non-disclosure agreements. It feels like the sort of place that could give birth to HAL 9000, and the aesthetics of the middle section of 2001 certainly had a heavy influence on Ex Machina’s production design. The score backs this up, pure mood and sound landscapes, all working together to create the overwhelming feel of a utopia going to seed. It is a confidently realized setting, the strong sort of foundation on which to cultivate a thought provoking science fiction thriller.
Perhaps what is most entertaining about this world is how Isaac chooses to actively play against it. Nathan is a product of the silicon valley revolution, and he shares the sort of anti-traditional casual outlook of his tech brethren. He speaks in a relaxed and convivial matter, drinking with the verve of a man living in total isolation beyond a robot he created. There is a levity to Isaac’s performance, a different dimension compared to his work in Inside Llewyn Davis or A Most Violent Year, and he continues to evolve into one of the must watch actors of his generation. Gleeson’s career as a leading man has been a bit choppy, his brand of aww shucks relatability grating against the sycophantic tendencies of his characters. He is better here, still a bit of a patsy but more assured in his understanding of who Caleb is. Equal to his task is Vikander, still a burgeoning name in Hollywood, but she will surely turn heads with her characterization of Ava. The majority of the second act is dominated by these one-on-one conversations between Ava and Caleb, and they have a natural chemistry that is always tinged with a dash of unease, and as Caleb discovers more about Nathan’s true intentions, the subtleties of their relationship evolves in a convincing way. It is essentially a three part film, and all three parts are comfortable in the skin (or not-skin) of their roles, giving Ex Machina an irresistible momentum into its third act.
In the past, Garland properties have had difficulties in their third acts. Sunshine is a film marred by its titanic shift in tone that serves to disrupt what was otherwise a cracking film, and the two films based on his work that he did not write suffer from a similar inability to close the deal. Indeed, once Ex Machina reaches its third act and the plot kicks into full gear, it is a tad disappointing how familiar it feels. The film has a similar problem to Sunshine, in that its destination does not cash in on the intricacies of its voyage, though this film is by no means as disastrous as the final third of that film. What is does seem to be is a film that is thoroughly convinced of its own cleverness, setting up twists in the narrative anyone could see coming and paying them off like some grand revelation when the time comes. It is no sin to baldly foreshadow, but it is a bit of a sin to treat that foreshadowing with a sagely knowing nod, a belief that this will blow its audience’s mind when just about anyone, including its dumbfounded lead character, should have seen coming. Garland deserves plaudits for his world, for his film’s production design, for his shrewd decision to make society outside of Nathan’s compound into a chaotic, silent mess (both the film’s first and last scenes are wordless, a wonderful bit of symmetry). His actors are game, and the majority of his screenplay is as sound as it gets when plumbing of the depths of hard science fiction. His destination, and how he reduces the complexities of his morality play into a familiar and played out gender dynamic, rings ever so slightly hollow. Luckily, the good outstrips the not-so-good, and even as the story lags, the mood and the tone of the piece remains consistently heartening. Alex Garland has fallen short of a masterpiece of science fiction in the vein of Kubrick, but Ex Machina still leaves plenty for the eyes, ears and mind to consider.