You remember 28 Days Later, don’t you? Danny Boyle’s cult-classic zombie thriller? Well, prepare to relive those nightmares, because scriptwriter Alex Garland is back! Having already re-wrote the book on zombie horror, he’s turned his attention to robots – with a twist.
AVA is no ordinary tin-man. In fact, she’s not even a man. Instead, she’s a fully functioning artificial intelligence, capable of replicating every human thought. And if a robot can think, maybe it can feel too. Is there a difference between having a thought, and experiencing it? In a world where technology is pervasive, Ex Machina taps into our paranoia, and shows us all what we’re afraid to see.
Considering the complexity of these issues, the initial premise is relatively simple. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a 26 year old computer programmer who wins a week’s getaway with the CEO of the company he works for. Far from your average holiday, this involves taking a helicopter to a secure facility deep in the mountains. Upon arriving, the CEO introduces himself as Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and wastes no time in explaining the purpose of Caleb’s visit…
That purpose is AVA (Alicia Vikander). The world’s first artificial intelligence. A magnificent android – not quite human, but not fully machine either. The test is simple – all Caleb has to do is determine whether or not she has consciousness. Can she think, or does she just replicate the actions of those who do? But how can we tell the difference? Poor Caleb has the exact same questions – and the even bigger one of deciding who to trust. Can we believe AVA? Is Nathan giving us all the facts? And did Caleb really win that competition by chance?
Setting the story aside for one moment, we can’t go any further without mentioning the technology that brings AVA to life. There must be some CGI present, but it certainly isn’t obvious. Her arms and legs are of a similar design to those used by modern paralympians, while her chest is reminiscent of light-weight carbon-fibre. Factor in a human face, and the effect is uncanny. We know that AVA isn’t real, but watching her gives the impression that she could be, maybe not far from now. This creates a sense of unease, which doesn’t let up as the film moves forward.
Watching AVA walk, talk, and interact is utterly hypnotic. The CGI and effects teams should be applauded for creating one of the eerily realistic androids in recent memory. But above this, it’s the script which elevates the film above your average psychological thriller. With Garland’s efforts, the film moves from marginally unnerving, to downright unsettling.
With the exception of Caleb, every character has their secrets to tell. Nathan is an egotistical mega-genius and social recluse. His paranoid obsession leads him to monitor inhabitants of the facility 24/7, and he is hell-bent on perfecting his creation. This is the perfect foil for the mechanical AVA, who is childishly sincere in all her actions. ‘You’re wrong’ she informs Caleb in one of their earlier sessions. ‘Wrong about what?’ he replies. ‘Nathan, he isn’t your friend’. The contrast is well-drawn, and deeply thought-provoking. Should we trust a machine, which appears more human than an actual man? Does she really care? Is that even possible?
With so many questions, and so much doubt, only one thing is certain. Ex Machina is not a brain-in-neutral sort of film. It’s more Interstellar than Terminator, and action fans should steer clear. But for those who want to be challenged – stimulated even – this is a must-see.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. For instance, Caleb (our protagonist) is woefully bland. Apart from a slightly larger intellect, he is completely devoid of distinguishing features. Whilst having a heroic everyman isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the contrast with AVA exacerbates his dull lifestyle. And as fascinating as she is, surely it would have been more entertaining to watch AVA interact with a human counterpart equally as complex.
However, putting aside these minor gripes, on the whole Ex Machina is well-written, well-acted and superbly engaging. Domhnall Gleeson does what he can with the lightly-written lead, and Oscar Isaac continues his string of good work, but AVA (Alicia Vikander) is the real winner. With smooth, mechanical movements, her AVA vacillates between human and robot, without fully committing to either. The film hinges upon the blurry lines between man and machine, and Vikander’s performance delivers this with panache.
Continuing the stream of questions, let’s get round to asking the one on everybody’s lips. Should you go and see it? Well, ask yourself this – do you want to engage with pressing cultural issues? Do you want to be glued to your seat with fear, and anticipation? Do you want to support outstanding British cinema? If you answered any of the above with yes, there can be no doubt – Ex Machina is the film for you.