There’s a wave of sci-fi movies about artificial intelligence recently. In the last 12 months we’ve had HER, TRANSCENDENCE, CHAPPIE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and even a small but integral element of INTERSTELLAR hinged on computer powered brains. It’s nothing new, of course – BLADE RUNNER (1981), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), METROPOLIS (1927), the list goes on, but as we teeter on advanced A.I. becoming a reality – and with it keeping the likes of Stephen Hawking up at night – expect more storytellers to reap the subject’s juicy potential.
EX MACHINA is the stab of screenwriter, and in his debut as director, Alex Garland (he wrote 28 DAYS LATER, the novel and screenplay of THE BEACH, SUNSHINE, and recently adapted NEVER LET ME GO for the screen). Actually ‘stab’ doesn’t it justice – think more along the lines of ‘surgical incision’. This is a highly accomplished, beautifully thought through piece of work. Though the subject as a whole invites comparisons to Shelley’s Frankenstein (what does it mean to be human?), the core influence of Garland’s tale – the skeleton on which he hangs his futurist ponderings – is the folktale Bluebeard. Don’t worry, you won’t miss the constant stream of references.
The story begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a workplace lottery to hang out for a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a genius billionaire recluse and founder of by far the world’s most dominant search engine, Bluebook (ding!). Nathan lives on an estate the size of a small country in an at once beautifully pristine and creepily bunker-like home that is also his high security research facility. But of course Caleb’s 'random selection' is anything but. In reality, Caleb has, among other things, significant technological prowess. Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing test to his top secret project – a new artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander); Nathan needs to know if it can pass for human, and Caleb is to interview it over several sessions. So begins a tense, paranoid, claustrophobic journey that soon starts raising some wide-ranging questions.
Garland has learned a great deal from shadowing Danny Boyle for a couple of movies, and he brings EX MACHINA to life with an amazingly steady hand, keeping it small and never over-reaching, but drawing top notch results from every filmmaking department at his disposal. It’s gorgeously and precisely photographed, Ava's CG design is flawless and beautiful, and the three central performances: Gleeson as the envious, toyed-with everyman, Isaac as the magnetic alpha genius egomaniac, and most of all ex-ballerina Vikander as the curious, exact android, are never less than wholly engaging. And let’s not forget Garland’s own screenplay, which represents his best work.
In keeping it to essentially a three-hander, we can better process the bigger philosophical questions Garland lobs at us (your brain will be bouncing around your skull like a Superball), while letting us keep pace with his tight thriller structure. It deftly walks the line between funny and sinister – when Nathan jokes that he killed his builders, we're with Caleb - unsure whether to laugh. Oh, and it features possibly the most highbrow MacGuffin we’re likely to see for some time.
EX MACHINA is a glorious achievement, and frankly it’s baffling that - in Queensland at least - it's being released on just one solitary screen (ironically, even a Met Opera recorded performance of Bluebeard is showing on two in the same week of release). Unless Universal will take the almost unheard of approach of copying the US release pattern, where the film has flourished into a full-blown sleeper hit and has just been expanded to 2000 screens, this is utter foolishness on their part. As it stands, I must recommend that Queenslanders head to Palace Centro to see it on the big screen it deserves. Thoughtful and supremely entertaining, EX MACHINA is a great work of science fiction for our time.
EX MACHINA is released May 7 in Australia.