Alex Garland has built his career on thought-provoking science fiction. 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go attempted to grapple with weighty issues about society and its inevitable decline, how we view ourselves and species and lots more besides. In his directorial debut, Garland takes us into the near future to a time when humanity is on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a young programmer at the world's largest Internet company. Selected in a lottery to spend a week with the company's reclusive owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), it's soon revealed that his purpose is to verify the sentience of a female robot. AVA, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, is a self-aware robot that is being put through a sort of Turing test by Caleb and Nathan. The film is split in seven sessions with AVA, each revealing more about what her emotional capabilities are and the more sinister aspects of Nathan's house.
Ex Machina is essentially a chamber drama, set entirely in Nathan's secluded research facility, and hinges on the performances of Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander. Isaac's performance is cleverly wrought and constructed. From the very get-go, it's clear that he is an egomaniac and rewrites conversations to fit his own design and purpose without a second thought. Underneath this, however, is a deep mix of self-anger and narcissism that bubbles to the surface throughout the film. Gleeson is the moral compass, wrestling with the very concept of a thinking, feeling robot and why it should even exist in the first place.
Alicia Vikander is a revelation, giving an eerily precise performance as AVA. Her physical mannerisms and presence is unsettling; like Caleb, you're drawn into the process of trying to examine and grapple with the very concept of a talking robot that's able to understand you. The screenplay is clever enough to limit the amount of technobabble, instead limiting it to a single scene where Nathan explains AVA's brain. Indeed, whenever Caleb attempts to ask questions about AVA's inner workings, Nathan refuses, saying that he's "not here for a seminar."
Garland, a first-time director, has a keen eye for set design and visuals. The film is gorgeously photographed throughout and the clean, modern lines of Nathan's house lends the film an elegance and beauty that's sorely lacking from modern sci-fi. The sleek and visually appealing imagery meshes wonderfully with its synth-driven soundtrack, featuring Portishead's Geoff Barrow. The screenplay attempts to work against itself and the audience's expectations. Caleb is constantly second-guessing Nathan, much like ourselves, but it only serves to work against him in the end. It's a clever move by Garland, but more time could have been given to understanding Nathan's motivations. He's simply building a female robot because he can. That's all we need to know, apparently.
Despite all these aspects, however, it begins to struggle under its own weight. Ex Machina is closer to Never Let Me Go than, say, Sunshine. What some could call a slow-burn, others might simply think of it as drawn out. The film lacks any forward momentum and is limited by the structure of Caleb and AVA's sessions. We see Caleb interact with her, followed by an analysis with Nathan. Here and there, there are punctuations of drama and intrigue. This repeats until the climax, where we are shook awake by the true nature of Nathan's experiments. One particular scene, towards the end, is one of the most disturbing scenes of 2015 so far. You'll know it when you see it.
Ex Machina, on many levels, feels like Spike Jonze's Her - if it was directed by Nicholas Roeg. Beautiful on the surface, but something rotten and dark underneath. Ex Machina is ponderous and thought-provoking, but there's little in the way of entertainment and enjoyment to be gained from it. Instead, it works at the grey matter and you'll find yourself turning over it for days to come. The glacial pace can be off-putting, but there's something interesting going on that demands your time.