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Writer Alex Garland has earned a reputation for making great cult novels and screenings, having The Beach, The Coma, 28 Days Later and Sunshine to his name. He has now moved into the director’s chair, making his debut with the slow burning sci-fi movie Ex Machina.
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a computer programmer for Bluebook, the biggest internet company in world. He has won a contest to meet the company founder and CEO, Nathan (Oscar Issac) at his secluded private estate in the middle of the mountains. But Nathan brought Caleb for an ulterior motive, to test his scientific breakthrough, Ava (Alicia Vikander), an robot with artificial intelligence. But in the claustrophobic environment, Caleb’s loyalty is tested between his employer and the sentient machine.
Garland is a skilled man writing sci-fi, he has given us Sunshine and adaptations of Never Let Me Go and Judge Dredd. As well as being an accomplish writer, he shows he has talent as a direct. He keeps Ex Machina small, having the movie set in a tight location and makes sure his movie is a character driven affair. It is a sensible move, keeping the movie focused on three main characters and being about its ideas and philosophical implecations of the creation of AI.
Garland made Ex Machina as both as sci-fi story and a thriller, a look at a possible technology and its implications on humanity and the goings on within the facility. Caleb is sent to question Ava as she proves her identity and that she is more than an information bank. But Caleb ends up questions his own identity. Due to the confined environment, Ex Machina is a dialogue driven movie as characters discuss the philosophy of the creation of AI and the scientific and psychological experimentation that is required. But Ex Machina does get bogged down during these discussions and Mr. Garland is just showing off how smart he is.
As a director, Garland is perfectly competent, employing a cold, distanced approach and gave Ex Machina a Kubrickian air, akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Garland gives us a minimalistic future, the facility is made up of whites and grays and having blue and red lights on the walls for keypads. It is a concrete, sterile research facility while the outside is made up of lustrous greens, highlighted when Caleb and Nathan are standing in the kitchen with the forest behind them and use of shots of the misty mountains. Ava had a great design, a mix of flesh, a metallic pattern and a see-through plastic, the design was very slick. And there are little hints of the route the movie is set to go down, such as a crack in a glass panel.
Garland borrows from elements from Moon and the British TV series Black Mirror. Both Moon and Ex Machina are set in isolated facilities with a small cast where there are hints of a mysterious past that the main character has to figure out. Both also touch on the themes of truth and identity and are excellent directional debuts. Like Black Mirror, Ex Machina tells a dark story of technology in the future. Garland is looking at AI, robotics and internet and modern communication.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy who did stellar work on Testament of Youth, continues to show his ability, transiting from the artificial world of the research facility and the natural beauty just outside, with greens and reds being truly striking. Composer Ben Salisbury and DJ Geoff Barrow give Ex Machina a trance soundtrack instead of a traditional classical score, adding to the eerie, distrustful nature of the movie.
Garland shows himself to not only be a great writer he is also able to provide strong visual sequences, especially for the second half of the film. He expertly uses many stylistic tricks, using black-and-white, surveillance footage and speeded up editing. Though Ex Machina is a dialogue heavy movie, there are some great quiet moments, when Caleb makes a discovery and questions his own identity, not needing any dialogue. A fight sequence is a deliberately muted affair, making it more impactful than if it was filmed like a big action set-piece.
Garland is lucky to have a talented cast of emerging actors who are all set to make it big. Gleeson and Issac are set to appear in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Vikander has a large slate of upcoming movies. All three work well together and all are well drawn characters. Gleeson is a good young man with great intelligence and knowledge and a match to Issac’s Nathan. But Gleeson’s American accent is not particularly convincing. Nathan himself is a dark version of Tony Stark, a brilliant scientist with charm, charisma and manipulative and enjoys his drink a bit too much. Vikander is colder as a robot and again shows her talent as Ava tries to prove her humanity.
Alex Garland has proven himself as a sci-fi writer and he moves into the director’s chair, making a visually engaging, thematic sci-fi thriller: but it does suffer from Garland’s intelligential posturing at times.