Acclaimed indie writer Alex Garland released his directorial debut earlier in the year. What followed was a host of critical acclaim as the film fled into select cinemas around the UK. Behind everyone else, but still keen to watch, I finally sat down today to view Garland’s first efforts behind the camera. I wasn’t disappointed. Ex_Machina is a force to be reckoned with – but in an eery, silent sense. If you’re looking for a futuristic action that depicts the rising up of AI and the fall of man, this isn’t your bag. If you’re a fan of intelligent cinema that asks the bigger questions – look no further. Slow but steady is the general pace, with the film divided into small and concise sections based around a question and answer process between Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb and Alicia Vikander’s Ava. The latter a stunning robot, created by the somewhat brutish Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Garland both wrote and directed the feature, and has included a sense of impending doom that frequents the film. This is only suggested through conversation, and it’s a powerful force. Garland proves himself as a talented helmer, directing his actors with what appears to be simplicity. For Ex_Machina is little less than startling, but in the least imposing way possible. It all sounds rather confusing, but to fully understand you just need to sit and watch. At 108 minutes the film is a perfect length – any longer would inspire tiresome clock watching. Movies based on artificial intelligence are generally a mixed bag. From the classic AI to the blockbuster I Robot, audiences have been provided with a hearty selection when it comes to this somewhat diverse genre. Garland decides not to follow the rules with his take on the sci-fi conundrum, but instead poses interesting ideologies that ask the question; ‘Who’s really the bad guy in all this?’ or at least something along those lines.
Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander all share the screen equally as the story of Ava, her creator, and the middle-man, comes together. Isaac provides us with a character who is possibly the most intelligent man on earth, yet hounded by drink and violence – these pivotal flaws come to the surface when necessary and before they are visible the actor makes sure he delivers an underlying malevolence through carefully selected mannerisms, and dialogue delivery. Isaac is the stand-out performance from the moment he welcomes Gleeson’s Caleb into his home. Vikander is of course striking as Ava; graceful, charming and naive, as a spectator you can’t help but root for this manufactured being who longs to survive. This point brings me to the main theme of Garland’s piece – humanity and the contemporary age. Technology is rapidly evolving, and with it society becomes increasingly attached and dependent. This is of clear concern to the director, who suggests we are all being watched from the opening scene. Could technology be the thing to wipe us all out? It seems Garland may think so.
The idea that we gaze upon things we perhaps shouldn’t is reiterated to us throughout, and it becomes clear towards the end that Ex_Machina is not so much about a future world, but the world we live in today. The creation of Ava (who is the object of admiration here), as an AI with a human face and robotic body is a triumph. Realistic and unnerving, Garland and his team have managed to design a character who may appear as alien to the human race as is possible, but comes with enough wisdom, and apparent heart, to suggest otherwise. Beyond the look of Ava, the set-pieces and locale deserve an applause, too. Rob Hardy took charge as director of photography and juxtaposes harsh interior with visceral locations, meaning the claustrophobic environment of Nathan‘s hide-out never becomes too over-bearing.
Not everyone will enjoy – or even understand – Alex Garland’s bold debut, but those that will, will treasure it. Understated, intense – and even a little scary – the writer come director has proved he can successfully translate page to screen, and do so with clarity and elegance.