Monday, 16 February 2015

Ex Machina had ‘a film that Kieron will like’ written all over it. An intelligent sci-fi thriller written by Alex Garland (Dredd, 28 Days Later), and directed by him too, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander (who are all going to be big stars any day soon). I’m sold.

It’s a simple premise: Caleb Smith (Gleeson), a programmer at search engine/technology giant Blue Book (the phonetic similarity to Google is no coincidence), is invited to spend a week at the remote house of big boss Nathan (Isaac). Of course, it’s not all shooting the breeze with some beers and a game of pool – Nathan wants Caleb to carry out the Turing Test on his AI creation Ava (Vikander). Naturally, shit spirals out of control, as Ava takes a liking to Caleb (or does she?) and Caleb realises that Nathan can’t be trusted (or can he?).

The movie plays out as a power play between these three characters, all hiding secrets from the others. Caleb and Ava’s growing relationship is never quite believable; I didn’t feel the affection for her he supposedly does – but maybe that’s part of the point. Where Ex Machina fails to engage on an emotional level, it succeeds on an intellectual level, asking us to think about what’s real, in our own feelings as well as in the world around us, and who we can really trust.

And Nathan is the least trustworthy of all (or is he?). It would have been easy for Garland and Isaac to have played him as ‘Evil Mark Zuckerberg’, but by making Nathan an imposing masculine figure, with glasses and silly beard giving away his hipster side, and with a very blokey friendliness towards his new housemate, he’s somehow terrifying. Throwing the nerdy Caleb into the house with him, the film really captures that feeling of not knowing how to act around someone evidently a lot cooler than you, and a lot better at creating robots. Man, I know that feeling.

What makes him all the more terrifying is that he’s constantly watching Caleb. This house is his domain and he sees everything that happens. Even when the house is hit by power cuts, Caleb can’t be sure there isn’t a battery-operated camera somewhere. And even outside the house, you’re not safe – tying deftly in to current fears about surveillance, Nathan’s created Ava’s AI from monitoring the world’s search engine usage, and her facial expressions were mapped from yours – yes, yours – that time you looked into your smart phone camera. 

If there’s any one theme binding the characters of Ex Machina together, it’s voyeurism, looking at things we shouldn’t, which Caleb becomes as guilty of as anyone else, with the TV in his bedroom linked to the surveillance cameras in Ava’s room. I’ve seen reviews saying later scenes become too uncomfortably voyeuristic, but for me the final act puts just enough power into Ava’s hands so as to avoid feeling misogynistic or leery. Rather, it's a deliberately uncomfortable portrayal of a misogynistic world where Nathan is very much in control – it's his world, not Ava’s or Caleb's, and it’s not a pleasant one.

Ex Machina is cold and nasty but all the more powerful for it. Like the best sci-fi should, it uses fascinating scientific ideas to ask important questions about our society and delivers these in a deeply compelling, twisted plot. Oh, and there’s an incredible dance sequence.


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