29 January 2015

Ex Machina review

The only things I knew about Ex Machina going in to it was that it's a British made science fiction film, written and directed by Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Dredd) and that the plot revolved around the idea of an artificial intelligence. I was sold on it instantly.

Ex Machina is the story of Ava, an artificial intelligence created by wealthy business man and technological genius Nathan, told through the eyes of Caleb. Caleb is a computer programmer in Nathan's company who wins a competition to go and visit Nathan in his home/research laboratory for a week, and ends up with the opportunity to perform a variant of the Turing Test on Ava in order to determine if she qualifies as a true artificial intelligence  - that is, if she can be classed as a true consciousness.

As with all great sci-fi, Ex Machina uses it's central concept in order to tell a very human story while continuously expanding on the central idea. Unlike a lot of more recent sci-fi films, which throw a bunch of future technologies at the wall to see what sticks, Ex Machina instead focuses on just the one idea and allows that to be the centre of the story, with very little else showing up. It's great to see a science fiction film so confident in its central premise, especially from a first time director. Comparisons to Blade Runner or other films related to artificial intelligence would be unfair - despite sharing a concept, the story being told is radically different, and the comparison is dismissive of the ingenuity and originality on display here.

Ex Machina wastes no time setting up the premise of the film, which is always refreshing - Caleb is whisked away to the research facility in the first minute of run time, giving us as an audience the same sense of uncertainty and haste that Caleb himself would be feeling, instantly helping us to connect to a character we really know very little about, at least at first.

Domnhall Gleeson is perfect as Caleb, really helping to sell a character that could have ended up distant or emotionally stunted in the wrong hands, and it's clear why he is frequently cited as a rising star and one to watch. Oscar Isaac is just as great as Nathan, playing the typical tortured genius as brash, abrasive and occasionally downright rude, and completely owns one of the best scenes ("Dance with her") that I've seen in the cinema in ages.

But it is Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, that really shines here. Initially, I forgot to talk about how good she is in this film because I forgot that Ava was played by an actress, instead completely buying into the character as an artificial intelligence, a creation of the film. There is a sense of naivety and vulnerability in the performance that means Ava is at once the most human character on screen, while at the same time a level of intelligence that makes her seem almost other worldly, frequently plunging into the uncanny valley and back out.

The design of Ava is great, with human looking feet, hands and face connected by a clear exoskeleton with wires and cables running throughout. She is completely captivating to watch thanks to a combination of the fantastic design, great CGI and solid, believable acting, and seeing her relationship with Caleb grow is as fascinating for the audience as it is Caleb himself.

Ex Machina ends up being one of the best pure science fiction films I've seen in a long time, with a great cast in a well written and original story that, despite using a fairly tried and tested sci-fi concept, never feels stale or predictable. It's smart without being pretentious, and concise enough that it doesn't outstay it's welcome, and is a film that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in science fiction.

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