World renowned screenplay writer, his early collaborations at the turn of the century with Danny Boyle produced the phenomenally successful feature films "The Beach", "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine" before writing further screenplays for "Never Let Me Go" in 2010 and "Dredd" in 2012. Ex Machina is Alex's directorial debut and a film I instantly fell in love with from the first time I saw this at the cinema and several re watches later I simply adore the nuances and themes that continually run through this cinematic gem. His second directorial cinematic release "Annihilation" is due for release circa September 2017 and ahead of this I've re-watched Ex Machina again for the following spoiler free rambling review. I sincerely hope you enjoy.
Given Alex Garland's screenwriting background it's unsurprising to note he also wrote the screenplay for this, his directorial debut behind the camera. It's also far from surprising given his writing collaboration on film's such as The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and more recently Never Let Me Go, that Ex Machina has a sublime, punchy, irreverent and intriguing script delivered by a total cast of just fifteen characters but which is in essence a "three hander" encompassing many pertinent themes of the current day yet aiming for a near future that is almost certainly coming: of conscious, socially acceptable cyborg machines, in a film I absolutely adored the minute I left the darkness of my local picture house over three years ago. Several repeat viewings since have never, ever disappointed. Essentially a three hander of a creative genius, his futuristic creation and a young man caught in the spiders web between them, here is a brief love in review through the thoughts and actions of our three main protagonists.
"Nathan" (Oscar Isaac)
Shot to prominence in recent years for his iconic and incredible roles in The Coen Brothers masterpiece "Inside Llewyn Davis", Nicolas Winding Refn's phenomenal "Drive" and the Star Wars franchise, Oscar Isaac has never been better than here with his twisted, slightly unhinged portrayal of Nathan. Inventor of the Internet search engine "Blue Book", insanely wealthy as a result and living in his own opulent bubble of hundreds of miles of beautiful and secluded forests, he has secretly created his greatest invention yet, a conscious, thinking, feeling Artificial Intelligence (AI) cyborg robot. However, his long period of seclusion and selflessly striding for a world changing invention has warped Nathan with many of his characteristics, from passive aggression to distantly intimidating, living in his own head and a mistaken grandiose sense of himself as a "God", Nathan has developed a twisted sense of cabin fever. He is forever testing, in every possible sense, whether himself, Caleb or Ava yet he desperately wants, needs even, simple human friendships as he pointedly laments to Caleb "I just want a beer and a conversation with you". Nathan is a man out of time yet ahead of his time too, shut off from human interaction and the raw intense emotions we all share. A puppet master in every sense, Isaac's portrayal is frighteningly brilliant at times and he has moves on the dance floor that have to be seen to be believed!
"Ava" (Alicia Vikander) Following her portrayal here as the lifelike AI cyborg robot Ava, Alicia Vikander would excel in central roles in phenomenally successful films such as "The Danish Girl", "Jason Bourne" and a personal favourite performance of mine in the Derek Cianfrance directed "The Light Between Oceans" but like Isaac above, she has rarely been better than here in Ex Machina. A human head atop a see through, translucent silver cyborg exoskeleton, Ava moves deliberately with a slow elegance and quiet grace combined with a huge linguistic database, she exists in that uncanny valley of believable realistic AI and human being which is brilliantly realised as her observation sessions reach their conclusion. Now, she begins to ask questions rather than simply responding to those posed by Caleb: "Do you think about me when we're not together?" and in Session Five "Today, I'm going to test you!". In a somewhat difficult role to portray, Alicia Vikander is pitch perfect in contributing to the heightening sense of paranoia and trust that pervades this film.
"Caleb" (Domhnall Gleeson) As with his co-stars above, Domhnall Gleeson would produce a career high performance here and then go on to star in future stellar roles in the Star Wars franchise as well as a brilliant performance alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant". Here Gleeson portrays Caleb, a programmer and industrious "coder" who wins the most sought after prize inside the Blue Book corporation, a week on a secret project with it's inventor Nathan. Intelligent, loquacious and according to Nathan's cutting vernacular "quotable", he's equally young, naive and in way above his head despite his intelligence and hard working nature. Caleb is quite simply the ideal puppet for an omnipotent master. Brought to Nathan's opulent and expensively secluded home to perform a series of Turing Tests on Ava to establish if she can pass for human, he enthuses at her creation and while investigating her true consciousness it will be "the history of Gods" if it can be proved. Which is music to Nathan's ears!
Nominated for two Oscars at the 2016 ceremony, Ex Machina triumphed in the category for Best Achievement in Visual Effects whilst Garland's nomination for his superb screenplay was trumped by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer's equally brilliant screenplay for the multi Oscar winning "Spotlight". Regardless of Oscar recognition, I adored Ex Machina on first viewing and in every subsequent watching since, from the captivating central performances to Rob Hardy's cinematography in the minimal scenes captured outside of the claustrophobic confines of Nathan's home. Claustrophobia is one of the film's many signature themes heightened throughout by an eerie musical score accompanied by the Director's tension inducing screenplay. The film is ultra stylised as well as having significant substance. What are everyone's motivations? Who is playing who? Who has the most to gain? Reflections pervade every pore of the film, in windows, mirrors and computer monitors as well as metaphorical reflections on the meaning of being human.
Watching. Watching. Watching. Caleb watching Nathan. Nathan watching Eva. Eva watching Caleb. Everyone watching everyone else. Drawing inspiration from Steven Spielberg's "AI Artificial Intelligence" and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner", Alex Garland's film shines a pertinent light on the contentious subject of the singularity as well as the rise of conscious, autonomous AI machines and whether they can replicate or actually really have souls and feelings. Ex Machina is an incredible debut film from Garland. He sure has a lot to live up to with his follow up "Annihilation" later this year!