A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina were both released on the same day over here on the small, angry island known as the UK, and both star the versatile Oscar Isaac, which is interesting because his roles in the two films are wildly different. In A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s brooding anti-gangster period film, Isaac plays a Colombian businessman trying to stay on the straight and narrow despite extreme pressure from both sides of the law. Here, in Alex Garland’s smart and icy-cool sci-fi, Isaac portrays a creepy tech-Svengali who also happens to be the reclusive CEO of a Google-style multinational named Bluebook. Commendably he is completely convincing in both films.
His co-star in Ex Machina is Domhnall Gleeson, who will also appear with Isaac in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’d like to think that Garland and his producers had wry smiles on their faces when the Star Wars cast was announced; the presence of Isaac and Gleeson in this film should result in a boost at the box office as curious sci-fi fans will be keen to see the two together.
Ex Machina is a strong work in its own right, though, and is worth seeing even if you’re non-plussed by JJ Abrams’ forthcoming blockbuster. Garland’s film is set almost entirely in one house, a modern architectural marvel that fits into its stunning mountain valley setting comfortably and has been kitted out by the kind of people who treat minimalism as if it were a religious doctrine. In a Bond film, or even an Austin Powers spoof, it could easily be the villain’s lair, but you can also picture an interminably smug couple overseeing its construction in an episode of the long-running TV show Grand Designs. The setting allows for greater concentration on the main characters and the way in which their relationships develop during the course of the story, which is key. There’s little action, but instead Garland and his cast successfully mine the same strand of unsettling tech-paranoia found in several episodes of Charlie Brooker’s excellent TV series Black Mirror (even replicating the cruel, downbeat sting in the tale that Brooker seems to favour).
Gleeson plays Caleb, a Bluebook coder who wins an in-company competition to spend a week with Isaac’s Nathan at this large house, which serves a dual purpose as the CEO’s remote research facility. A forced friendship is quickly established, with the tentative Caleb encouraged to relax by his vain host, whose predilection for twisting words quickly reveals an unchallenged, rapidly-developing god complex. Upon his arrival Caleb learns that Nathan has been developing a humanoid artificial intelligence, resulting in a cyborg named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and that his job is to perform a week-long Turing Test to determine just how successful Nathan has been. Has Ava developed the ability to feel emotions such as love? Will Caleb himself fall in love with Ava, built with sexuality in mind by Nathan, who recognises its historical importance to evolutionary steps? And just what secrets lie behind the doors Caleb cannot open with his freshly-minted keycard?
It plays like an extended, modern riff on the Voight-Kampff test seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Ex Machina also follows that film’s lead with its subsequent examination of the ability of humanoids to survive in a human-controlled world, and whether or not they can genuinely feel emotion. It also brings to mind Spike Jonze’s Her, the similar themes contained in Garland’s adapted screenplay for Never Let Me Go, and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, though this movie is far more low-key in the way that it raises its questions and in the way that it presents its thrills than that blockbuster.
It feels sufficiently of its time, too. Basing the story around a fictional company that began life as ‘the world’s biggest search engine’ allows Garland, who also wrote the screenplay, to highlight several (real life) concerns relating to privacy and the collection of big data in both predictable and inventive ways. The cameras and security systems built into Nathan’s house are manipulated in a simple game of cat-and-mouse by the three main characters in this story (there is a supporting fourth character, named Kyoko, played by Sonoya Mizuno), which hints at the disturbing control-freakery that lies behind such monitoring, while Garland also incorporates several minor but relevant plot points relating to search engine terms and our own control over the technology we use (principally those smartphones we seem to love so much). For the most part it’s smart, zeitgeist-surfing material that assumes its audience is intelligent, but crucially it never alienates through constant middle-brow theorising.
Isaac and Gleeson can both be happy with their work here, but Vikander’s performance is crucial, and she does an excellent job, delivering a performance that includes a heavy degree of blank naivety or innocence while occasionally revealing warmth, sensuality and even conspiratorial panic. We see Vikander’s / Ava’s face and parts of her body, but otherwise it’s a CGI clear shell that reveals the inner machinations devised by Nathan. The body looks great – and I mean that in a non-seedy way – and I like the fact that Garland goes to great lengths to explain why his cyborg has sex appeal.
Garland has exceeded my expectations as a director too. It’s an assured debut, looking to the increasingly-looming spectre of Stanley Kubrick for inspiration, and copping plenty from that master’s formalist approach: the lighting, sound and set design, lingering shots of bland corridors and editing are all clearly important to the filmmaker and, added together, make for a distinctly cold and clinical milieu. Every now and again he has the confidence to break away from the prevailing mood of the film, though, which is nice to see; there’s one terrific dance scene here, for example, that completely works even though it is at odds with the rest of the film. It’s nice to see a few risks taken, and for the most part the approach pays off in an entertaining fashion.
It’s not perfect, though, and there are some touches that are a little heavy-handed: he’s overly fond of a reflection or a mirror image to hint at duplicity, and there are a few too many shots of the natural world around the house to ram home the nature vs nurture angle, for starters. Additionally, if I’m going to be picky, I’d argue that the relationship between Ava and Caleb develops a little too quickly and the film hinders itself with its one week timeframe. There are also small holes in the plot, particularly with regard to the ending, but by and large it’s a smart and pertinent sci-fi with a satisfyingly odd, dark streak at its core.
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
Running Time: 108 minutes