Ex Machina is a high concept film about genius, obsession, lust, love, and violence. It’s a sci-fi thriller in an Asimovian vein, delving deeply into notions of identity while remaining accessible and entertaining.
Directed by Alex Garland, a filmmaker best known for his scripts to the likes of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina continues his pattern of using the tropes of speculative fiction to delve into character interaction.
We’re introduced to a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins his golden ticket via instant message. This Wonka-like win isn’t explained at first, he’s simply congratulated by his co-workers and soon whisked off by helicopter to a remote outpost.
Landing in a vista reminiscent of the establishing shots of Jurassic Park, Caleb finds himself entering a beautifully designed building nestled between the trees, rocks and water in this secluded environment. He soon meets Nathan (exquisitely portrayed by Oscar Isaac), the reclusive inventor who has something truly remarkable to show Caleb.
Along with a strong performance by A Royal Affair’s Alicia Vikander, the film’s claustrophobic environment shares the best qualities of a stage production, with the sumptuous, highly cinematic visuals never making it feel contrived or stiff. The camera sweeps through the compound, using the textures of concrete and steel and the myriad of reflections from the glass panels to visually impart the sense of disconnection and introspection.
Strictly as a kind of mystery the film rarely treads on new grounds, and save for a few twists and turns we’re getting some pretty boilerplate stuff here. Pay attention to the setup, and it won’t take very much to be attuned with just how things are going to go. That said, I found myself captivated in the execution, pleased with just how Garland teased out the story in packets, allowing the audience to catch on to little moments of foreshadowing and foreboding.
It’s an arch story told with intimacy, a film with big ideas and big ambition told in a confined, almost cloistered environment. It’s a film with ideas that are deep, but a story line that frankly doesn’t need to be delved in too much without worries that it’ll fragment. Obsessing about the small details of the narrative in this case doesn’t help – its background, frankly, to the mood that Garland and his team of filmmakers have set. The philosophy is important, naturally, but it’s in the character moments – the smile of a woman’s face through some glass, the synchronized disco dancing, the feeling of both opulence and austerity – that gives the film what I hope will be a lasting presence.
Both the stage sets and gorgeous location shooting (the mountains and creeks of Norway, along with some mindboggling architecture) gives the sense of otherworldliness combined with an intense Earthiness, the very paradox between machine and human at the heart of the tale.
The ending of the film is likely to split audiences, but thankfully it’s one that’s both earned and provocative, in keeping with its independent roots and differing from what a more mainstream film may have tried to tack on.
It’s easy for some to cynically dismiss this film (just as I felt it too easy for many to fall for the inferior Her by the normally stalwart Spike Jonze). There’s a great deal to admire about this film, and for younger audiences not already drenched in classic sci-fi it may in fact prove to be shocking original. For us that are slightly more jaded, the film benefits greatly from a lack of smarminess. It’s dark threads of cynicism are absolutely on point, and its deeper reflections upon identity never get in the way of a strong and entertaining picture.
As a directorial debut by a well-known screenwriter, Garland more than establishes himself as talent to watch. It may be easy to overlaud this film by those craving a bit more intelligence from their sci-fi stories, just as the more seasoned will dismiss its relative lack of deep, novelistic sophistication. For me it’s the perfect balance between the cerebral and the emotional, crafting a thrilling film that still remains intellectually provocative. It’s a difficult creature to build indeed, and I’m pleased that Garland and his team managed to pull of such a feat.
Ex Machina had its Canadian debut as part of the Calgary Underground Festival, and opens throughout the country on April 24th
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