THE CASUAL FILMGOER MAY never have heard of Alex Garland. If they have, they might see him—unfairly—as a sort of side-kick to Danny Boyle, Garland having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, The Beach (based on his novel) and Sunshine among countless other successful films. It is ironic, really, because Garland––novelist, screenwriter, producer, video game writer and now, director–is everywhere––provided you know where to look.
Whether his reputation for elusiveness, which followed the huge success of his zeitgeist book, The Beach, had any bearing on Garland’s decision to step behind the camera we can’t know, but what we do know from his directorial debut, the cerebral thriller Ex Machina, is that Mr. Garland’s talents extend far beyond the realms of pen and paper.
Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is a programmer at the technology giant Blue Book, a search engine responsible for ninety percent of the world’s Internet traffic. In a company lottery, he wins the chance to spend a week at the sprawling estate of the reclusive Blue Book CEO and founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wrote the search engine’s code when he was thirteen. Caleb discovers that his host doesn’t simply want to drink beer and talk coding: Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a face-to-face version of the Turing test—a test of whether an artificial being can show intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human—on his robotic creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
It is typical for something written by Garland to more about its characters and concepts than its plot. Ex Machina consists of a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb and between Caleb and Ava—for the best part of its running time, during which Caleb, as the vehicle for the viewer, tries to determine the motivations of both his drunken yet dauntingly intelligent host and his enchanting robotic test subject, and soon enough he comes to suspect that both may be misleading him.
Through these exchanges we come to know the characters, and though each conversation is revealing, the revelations are never disclosed in an obvious or heavy-handed way. The conversations are refreshingly intelligent; Garland has the trio freely discuss ideas and concepts without consideration for the viewer with no knowledge of that world. Every conversation is engaging—thrilling, even—and at the conclusion of the film there is the wholly satisfying feeling that no stone, so to speak, has been left unturned.
What makes Ex Machina more unsettling than other works of science fiction is its plausibility. It leads us to wonder: if we were to learn tomorrow that a reclusive Silicon Valley programmer had created something close to artificial intelligence, would we be so surprised?
Domhall Gleeson is ideally cast as Caleb, starstruck by the brilliance of his host, undeniably intelligent, but equally naive. Oscar Isaac, who is is fast becoming one of the best actors of his generation, turns in another excellent performance. It is Alicia Vikander, however, who really shines as an android on the very cusp of humanity. It is a role that necessitates a great deal of physical and verbal subtlety, but Vikander navigates this dramatic minefield imperiously.
To write much of the praise I have for this film would be to give too much away. What I can say is that this is a stylish and intelligent film with few flaws, and that Garland’s directorial career is off to an impressive start.