Alex Garland is a name you might not recognise. If like him, you’re a gen-Xer, you may be familiar with his 1990s novels The Beach and The Tesseract. The former was adapted by screenwriter John Hodge for director Danny Boyle, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead.
Quite the pedigree
Following that, Garland wrote his first screenplay for Danny Boyle’s micro-budgeted 28 Days Later (2002), to which many would attribute this neverending resurgence of zombies in popular culture. Now he’s taken on the challenge of both writing and directing.
Ex Machina arrives on a new wave of smart, grown-up science fiction that arguably began in earnest with the success of Duncan Jones’s Moon in 2009. Garland had earlier tried his hand at the genre when he penned Sunshine (2007), again directed by Boyle. Despite a solid set-up, that film devolves into a silly game of cat and mouse (in space). Thankfully, no such shortcomings are evident here in what is a surprisingly assured directorial debut.
Great visual economy
In an opening told with great visual economy, we see lowly programmer Caleb (Gleeson) online as he wins an opportunity to spend a week with Nathan (Isaacs), the reclusive genius who employs him and thousands more at BlueBook – a fictional approximation of Google.
Once in Nathan’s mountain retreat, Jay learns the purpose of his visit. Nathan has constructed an AI and wishes for Jay to conduct a ‘Turing test’ to assess the ‘human’ qualities of his creation, Ava (Vikander). He does this over a series of daily sessions after which he reports his findings to Nathan. Over the course of the week, Jay finds himself drawn to Ava, while Nathan drinks to excess and becomes increasingly difficult.
Prescient clue in Isaac’s name?
Gleeson (son of Brendan), the bemused protagonist in 2014’s Frank, delivers a similarly perplexed performance here. Vikander, as Ava, is able to immediately suspend our disbelief, aided by some incredible visual effects, but it is Oscar Isaac who is the real revelation. If Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t proof enough, Isaac is one of the most exciting new talents around. Here he subtly transitions from congenial to menacing in the same breath – and he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.
Garland has an admirable capacity for finding humour integrated with the drama. Furthermore, in the film’s best scene, Isaac carries off what is essentially a dance number in the middle of the film. Most impressive is Garland’s ability to stay well ahead of the audience without compromising his narrative’s integrity. Regardless of how hard you’re working, he makes certain you’ll see little of what’s actually coming.
Issues of manipulation
As the best adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein never made, one is left with an overwhelming feeling of unease – not at the prospect of a world to come, but the current one in which our very thoughts are harvested as tools for our manipulation. The potential for the abuse of constant surveillance – online and otherwise, afforded to those with such power – looms ominously over this work.
With a cinematic lineage that stretches all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, this is Garland’s finest hour. Ex Machina was most probably dropped by Danish distributors last year in favour of Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, or because that film bombed – that was a mistake. Here’s your chance to see it on the big screen.