A lot of the best science fiction deals with ideas. Be this about the nature of humanity, satires of politics, religions/religious beliefs, class structures, or any and every manner of real-world issues. The science fiction genre has traditionally been more than willing to examine these ideas, but in a viscerally stimulating and cinematically exciting fashion – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner spring to mind. 2015’s Ex Machina is a more modern example of this, and deals with the fundamental question of what makes us human, whilst being a great film at the same time.
Director Alex Garland’s first feature-length picture, Ex Machina stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno and…well, that’s it. Gleeson plays Caleb, an employee of a Google/Apple-like super-company that’s a prosperous titan of the Internet and technology market – though what the company actually does day-to-day is intentionally not mentioned in too much detail. Instead Garland shifts all of the focus away from this almost immediately, allowing us to focus in on the four (or three) main characters of the drama. Caleb, through a workplace raffle, has won a trip to visit the far-out literal wilderness retreat of the CEO of the company, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. The week’s trip entails several Turing tests on Nathan’s newly created, but still hyper-secretive artificial intelligence, Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.
The film pans out almost like a play, with a rich nuance in its performances, settings, and tone – like a perfect microcosm of its wider society, its characters are symbolic of ideas, but not to the extent that they become purely extended versions of these. Each character is virtually impossible to decipher, and the viewer never knows who, if anyone, to trust. This is in part due to the spectacular performances of the cast, with Isaac and Vikander standing out particularly. Isaac’s Nathan is a man who is confident, competent, and clearly hugely intelligent, whilst simultaneously being a man who lives alone, parties alone, and seems to have far more aggression under the surface than first appears. Vikander’s Ava is similarly played with an intentional ambiguity – being the actual literal robot of the film, Ava naturally is naturally less physically emotive than the human characters, but again, not in a way that is two-dimensional. Instead Ava is played with subtlety, where the dialogue is as important as the actions, or in this the case, the lack of them for the most part. Thus, it is the viewer that projects meaning onto her, rather than the other way around.
This results in some great revelations, some of which are fully expected, but even the more obvious plot points are executed brilliantly. It’s all to do with the atmosphere that lingers and hangs in the air of the entire runtime. It’s consistently tense and unnerving, and downright frightening in some parts. Ex Machina has a relentlessness throughout it that hasn’t been seen in mainstream cinema properly since Reservoir Dogs, though it is significantly slower paced than it. In the background of all of this are the questions of what it means to be human, why we impose sexualities onto objects as well as people, and a whole host of other debates that are brought up along the way, but through debate and logic, rather than, ironically, plot-point deus ex machinas.
It’s creepy, to put it bluntly. Garland and the cast and crew clearly worked hard on maintaining this atmosphere not just for one or two pivotal scenes, but for the whole film, making it all fit into place neatly, the plot ticking away like a clock. Everything is here that needs to be; it does not mess around with risky subplots or care for the number of explosions and objectified actors and actresses it can throw on the screen at once. Instead, refreshingly, it’s a science fiction film that harks back to when mainstream science fiction wasn’t afraid to go big – in the sense of the meanings of the films as well as their content. All this, with contemporary special effects, a truly superb cast, and a script perfectly brought to life by Garland and the cast, and one of the best films of 2015 is the result.
That, in short, is the brilliance of this film. It takes pride in creating the right mood, establishing the right setting, and utilises its characters to ask big questions whilst also being a wholly entertaining and enigmatically tense thriller. It’s not edge-of-your-seat viewing in the typical sense, but it’s easily as gripping and engaging as any popcorn thriller, and arguably even more than the vast majority of them.
By Oliver Rowe