When a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to spend a week with the revolutionary scientist Nathan (Oscar Isaac), he is taken aback when learning of the project ahead – tasked with the job of testing and evaluating the latter’s latest creation – Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtakingly advanced A.I. While Caleb studies Ava, the pair build up a rapport, and as the week long retreat at this isolated mansion progresses, the programmer becomes less and less sure of who he is able to trust.
Garland ensures that the viewer feels anxious from the very word go, as instantly we get a sense of isolation [pull_quote_right]It’s ambitious, but never in a way that proves to be detrimental, [/pull_quote_right]that derives from this house being in the middle of nowhere – where doors are locked, like a prison, making you feel trapped and vulnerable. Then we meet Nathan, and within a mere matter of moments we feel on edge. Isaac emanates an intensity, an unpredictability of sorts. Yet you always believe in his intellect. He may wonder around in a vest and tracksuit bottoms, drinking beer and saying words like “dude”, but in spite of this subversion of the stereotypical scientist, you never question his professional standing and immense capability. Gleeson matches his counterpart every step of the way, and in a similar vein to Frank, he represents the viewer, and normality, caught up in this crazy world where everything is so extraordinary. He plays the everyman with such ease, as a relatable, endearing and sympathetic actor – which is exactly what this role requires.
To complete the pack, Vikander also turns in a hugely commendable performance. She’s beguiling and seductive. Garland not only humanises, but sexualises Ava, and similarly to Caleb, we almost become attracted to her, we buy in to her despondency and care for her as a result, as the actress manages to be vacant, as an artificial intelligence creation should be, and yet have an empathy behind the eyes too. But that being said, we never fully trust her either. She’s not a human being, we can’t comprehend how she works, what she’s thinking. We have no grasp on her real emotions. It puts us firmly in Caleb’s shoes – caught between two characters, never knowing which way to turn, or who to lean on.
Every single corresponding relationship between these three protagonists is so multi-faceted and nuanced, each with so many subtleties and complexities. It’s what helps make for such a thought-provoking piece of cinema, as an intelligent study of advanced technology and our ever evolving relationship with it. Ex_Machina is a film bursting with ideas. It’s ambitious, but never in a way that proves to be detrimental, because Garland completely follows through with a stunning conviction. Whatever he decides to direct next, really could not come soon enough.