Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Intelligent science-fiction with Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a three hander between man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac (also in A Most Violent Year), woman-of-the-month Alicia Vikander (currently portraying Vera Brittain in Testament of  Youth, before completing her hattrick with next week's Son of a Gun) and ginger-of-the-year Domhnall Gleeson. As you can see in the picture above, at least one member of the trio is not of the human variety. Ava (Vikander) is a cyborg created by the eccentric genius and billionaire Nathan (Isaac) in his isolated mansion. We arrive at the ultra-modern residence in the company of Caleb (Gleeson), a young, wide-eyed computer nerd. He gets to spend a week in the company of his boss after winning a competition, during which he is to fulfill a very important task: perform the Turing-test on Ava in order to determine whether she truly possesses artificial intelligence.

One of Ex Machina's strong points is the air of uncertainty. The relationships between the three central characters keep shifting and there is constant doubt about their motives. Soon, we feel like we can't trust anybody. Nathan is a cross between Frankenstein, Colonel Kurtz and Mark Zuckerberg with lovely beard and a fondness for alcoholic beverages while Ava's mind is not as transparent as her body. Then there is the possibility that she has no control over her actions. Was she simply programmed that way? We never know who is manipulating whom in this unconventional triangle.

The true manipulator is Alex Garland. After making his name as a novelist (The Beach) and a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go), the Brit took place in the director's chair for the first time. His work is, like all good science-fiction, full of fascinating ideas. Ex Machina feels in some ways like a continuation of two 2014 films starring Scarlett Johansson. On the one hand you have the idea of looking at human behaviour from an outside point of view like in Under the Skin. How does a form of artificial intelligence perceive humans? This ties in with the themes of Spike Jonze's Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the voice of an operating system. Garland takes this a step further by giving his machine a visibly mechanical body, combined with a human face and a gender. This is clearly enough for Caleb to feel some sort of attraction towards Ava. Garland plays around with these concepts, defies our expectations and asks intriguing questions.

Ex Machina primarily appeals to the brain. It is a simple affair playing out in a single location without elaborate action sequences. The film nevertheless doesn't become becomes static. The camera keeps moving through the windowless interrogation room on the prowl for new angles and Garland keeps our attention with regular visual treats (exhilarating landscapes, nudity, unique dance moves). Ex Machina delivers for all fans of intelligent sci-fi and the comparison with Moon are justified.