Ex Machina (2015)
When the trailer for Ex Machina corrupted my mainframe a few weeks ago I can’t say my circuits started misfiring or malfunctioning, sure it looked like an intriguing new SF film had somehow swept under my sensors but the programmers behind the code weren’t necessarily the most skillful in the business. We all know Alex Garland from his fruitful collaborations with Danny Boyle and his scripting of the criminally underrated Dredd, but any genre appreciation was tempered by the two-thirds strong Sunshine which I always thought lost significant velocity during its final act Pink Floyd tribute turn. His new script and directorial debut is an infinitely more accomplished affair, a piece pulsing with contemporary questions and computer generated queries, a cybernetic successor to recent genre conquests such as Moon or Primer. In a triumph of brevity an economic opening montage sees promising computer programmer Caleb (a well accented Domhnall Glesson) the lucky winner of a company wide competition to spend a week with his Svengali CEO employer, and before we know it we are ensconced in a remote Nordic nest, the retreat of the genius techno-seer Nathan played by arising superstar Oscar Issac. It’s fifteen minutes into the future of a plausible, inevitable world where epochal progress has been made in the twinned fields of robotics and cybernetics, forming a evolutionary cradle for the first strain of an advanced Artificial Intelligence.
In this single isolated setting the cerebral cat and mouse between Gleeson and Isaac is incepted by the appearance of Ava (Alicia Vikander), all chrome lacquered curiosity to Isaac’s arrogant intellect. Nathan instructs Caleb to take Ava through an advanced version of the Turing Test, assessing whether independent thought and agency is pulsing through her potentially sybartic cells, as Vikander’s gently engineered performance melds with Garland’s thoughtful script. The CGI chassis is well executed with only the odd lapse in credibility, but the film really finds its stride with the dialogue and intellectual ponderings that arise from Ava and Calebs increasingly warm interactions. It’s a conscientiously researched and impeccably framed dance that pirouettes around its central processing mysteries, just whom is programming who? Is the empathy engineered or arising from instinct? When the inevitable occurs and both Ava and Caleb form feelings for each other the drama creeps in like a virus, and Nathan’s mission statement becomes more murky and menacing.
Through this binary Ava narrative structure of Ava / Caleb (which any SF fan will find reminiscent of the Voight-Kampf procedure) and Caleb / Nathan reviewing results is where the films intelligence is dragged to the foreground, raising the crucial questions of agency and intellect, or nature and nuture. If a computer is programmed to play chess is it just running through a neural acticity to predict and mold success, or does it even have any concept of chess as an abstract entity, a battle and melee of competitive minds? I simply loved the environment of the film, both physical and intellectual, the former an intriguing hybrid of a Rhodium member Mandarin Oriental executive suite, a bio-neural monitoring R&D lab and alpine Euthanasia clinic. Visually the film’s architecture is all sleek polished chrome, reflective mirrors and ergonomic angles, a prime design directive set at opaque angles to suggest deception and doppelgänger deceit. To hack any further details of the films trajectory would be a crime but I’ll just divulge this, it has been a week since I saw this terrific debut and it lingers in the memory bank, finally arriving at a Terence Malick induced coda, a metallic masquerade.
If we sweep our pre-cog circuits forward a full lunar cycle then Gleeson and most certainly Oscar Isaac will probably be international megastars due to their participation in a certain anticipated space opera franchise, Isaac already has been generating industry buzz as ‘the next Pacino’ since his breakthrough turns in Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m looking forward to seeing A Most Violent Year which is his other criminal step toward superstardom, I’m probably going to be pairing that as a double-bill this weekend alongside Inherent Vice which opens on Friday – 1970’s California and 1980’s New York should be a fun history lesson. In the meantime Ex Machina is an impeccably arranged, cerebrally challenging and brilliantly assured debut from Garland, very much a film of our times and an interesting companion piece to Her and Under The Skin. All three films probe at the limits of our defintions of humanity and consciousness, they are algorithms of authenticity with a particular urge toward gender issues and feminine representation in popular culture, as we are assured in Ex Machina that hell hath no fury like a singularity scorned;