The potential existential threat to humans posed by the dawning era of artificial intelligence is the theme chosen by British screenwriter Alex Garland for his stylish directing debut. The subject may be familiar, but Garland has a track record of rebooting and revitalizing pulp genres, most notably his “fast zombie” script for Danny Boyle’s dystopian thriller 28 Days Later. He also worked with Boyle on the screen version of his own cult novel The Beach, and the futuristic space adventure Sunshine.
Despite its modest budget — reportedly around $13 million — Ex Machina looks sleek, shiny and remarkably slick for a directing debut. But it also suffers from the same kind of third-act slump that marred some of Garland’s previous work, promising a psychological depth and dramatic punch that it never quite delivers. That said, this is still a classy piece of cerebral sci-fi, with high production values and hot media buzz that should propel it beyond fanboy circles. It opens in Britain next week, with a U.S. launch planned for SXSW in March followed by an April release through niche distributor A24.
Already on course for sci-fi immortality in the next Star Wars movie, rising young Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a geeky 24-year-old coder for a Google-like Internet company who wins an office lottery prize to spend a week with his reclusive genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote fortress of solitude in the Alaska mountains. Essentially, Caleb is Charlie to Nathan’s Willy Wonka. But soon after he arrives by helicopter, it becomes clear Caleb’s golden ticket was planted by Nathan, who needs a human lab rat to assist in his top-secret research project to build the world’s first free-thinking android, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Initially informal and laid back, Nathan’s forced bromance with his new house guest soon takes an ominous turn when he presses Caleb into subjecting Ava to the “Turing Test” (as seen in Blade Runner), which is designed to differentiate humans from smart machines. But Ava has other plans, running her own sly tests on Caleb as she flirtatiously recruits him for a robot mutiny against Nathan. This three-way battle of wits eventually becomes a lethal fight for survival. Caleb is forced to choose between the seductive Ava and the bullying Nathan, both of whom appear to have murky motives.
Gleeson is excellent at conveying brainy beta-male vulnerability, and handles his American accent convincingly, but he still feels a little too wan for leading man duties. Heavily bearded and barely recognizable from previous roles, Isaac is more impressive. His Method-style immersion in Nathan combines the Zen intensity of Steve Jobs with the party-hard muscularity of a surfer dude. The delightfully unexpected scene where he breaks into synchronized disco dancing with his mysterious Japanese partner Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is one of the best in the movie, a welcome shot of humor in an otherwise self-serious project.
But Vikander is the heart of the film, her poised performance combining mechanical implacability with troubling emotional undertones. The Swedish-born ex-ballerina moves with a dancer’s precision, incorporating subtle hints of cybernetic stiffness as she extends her lean biomechanical limbs to the soft whirr of internal servo motors. Conceived by a team led by production designer Mark Digby and costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ, Ava’s graceful humanoid form is the film’s chief visual trump card, scoring maximum eye-popping impact with a transparent wire-mesh jewel-case midriff and luminous cranium that were added in postproduction. She looks like a walking, talking, next-generation Apple product: the first iHuman maybe?
Artfully spartan in its use of digital effects, Ex Machina looks great, forging a strong visual aesthetic from a limited budget. All glass walls and stripped pine, Nathan’s remote mountain retreat is elegantly sketched out as a modernist, minimalist holiday cabin perched atop a high-security subterranean bunker. Interiors are clinical and sparse, with muted colors and discreetly embedded technology. With Norway standing in for Alaska, the landscape framing the action is elemental and vast, awesome in scale but chillingly devoid of human life. It could be prehistoric, or even postapocalyptic.
Grounded in real cutting-edge science, Garland’s talk-heavy screenplay has the crisp feel of a three-handed stage play. Imagining the imminent future of sentient machines that many computer experts now deem to be inevitable, he speculates how the birth of a “singularity” like Ava might spell doom for clunky old analog software like Homo sapiens. Garland also pointedly sets aside the famous Three Laws of Robotics drafted by pioneering sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, which forbade machines from harming humans.
The technology in Ex Machina may be current but the story belongs to a long screen lineage spanning from Metropolis to The Terminator to The Matrix, and dozens more besides. Garland brings little fresh to this familiar man vs. machine theme, aside from explicitly sympathizing with the robots over the humans. He also signals far too soon that Nathan is a mad scientist in classic movie tradition, Doctor Frankenstein with a hint of Colonel Kurtz, but never provides any plausible explanation for how he ended up so damaged.
Garland’s screenplay is linear and low on tension, with too few of the dramatic swerves and shock twists that many sci-fi fans will be expecting. There are promising hints of a Stepford Wives feminist subtext in the male human/female robot power play, especially when Ava’s potential as an expensive sex toy is briefly discussed, as well as a teasing Blade Runner-style sequence about robots who believe themselves to be humans. Sadly, both these intriguing tangents lead nowhere.
The story ends in a muddled rush, leaving many unanswered questions. Like a newly launched high-end smartphone, Ex Machina looks cool and sleek, but ultimately proves flimsy and underpowered. Still, for dystopian future-shock fans who can look beyond its basic design flaws, Garland’s feature debut functions just fine as superior pulp sci-fi.
Production companies: DNA Films, Film4
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Issac, Sonoya Mizuno
Director-screenwriter: Alex Garland
Producers: Andrew McDonald, Allon Reich
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Tessa Ross
Cinematographer: Rob Hardy
Editor: Mark Day
Production designer: Mark Rigby
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Visual effect supervisor: Andrew Whitehurst
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated 15 (U.K.), 108 minutes