Ex Machina, dir/wr. Alex Garland, st. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) makes his directorial debut here with this neat little treatise on Artificial Intelligence's capacity for morality, rationality, sexuality, and independent thought. The film's entire two hour running time devotes itself to what usually lies inside most A.I. movies' singular expository lines, title cards, or brief montages that depict the rise of the machines, which is fair enough, for that is where the Boom! happens. Ex Machina chooses instead to focus on the detailed interplay between creator and created, ostensibly the Turing Test - designed to see if mecha and orga can really be indistinguishable from one another - but as the film progresses, revealing itself to be a labyrinthine commentary on manipulation, players and played. Gleeson plays Caleb, a nobody of a coder at Bluebook, Machina's version of Google, who suddenly finds himself the recipient of a prize to fly out to Alaska and spend a week with the company's enigmatic and reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Once at his arcadian, futurist eco house that doubles as a research laboratory, Caleb discovers the true purpose of his visit; he is to test Nathan's fembot Ava, cannily and purposefully played with a little too refined poise and control by Alicia Vikander, to see if she's quite the breakthrough humanity has been waiting for - or indeed dreading, depending on your point of view.
Isaac is quite brilliant here, an ever-soused, cabin-fevered genius, by turns seedy and lugubrious, who charms and frustrates Caleb with intoxicating egotism. It sets us up to second-guess everything we see from the off, and it's undoubtedly Garland's trump card, played judiciously early and upfront. Equally compelling is Vikander as Ava, cutting a lithe figure of grey carbon-fibre meshing and perspexed diodes - as much a triumph of her elaborately mannered performance as the VFX that complete her. The film isn't quite as original as its ambition - design elements from sci-fi of yore are heavily influencing, as are many of the characters' motivations and narrational beats, but the concept - in particular where self-preservation bleeds into our very human perspective of emotional desire - proves a winning and effectively uncomfortable hook.