Writer Alex Garland is without a doubt one of the most talented writers of the 2000s. His writing had consistently impressed with his efforts with director Danny Boyle, those being the absolute classic 28 Days Later and the almost classic Sunshine (if not for it’s terrible final act). He has also written great screenplays away from Danny Boyle, including Never Let Me Go and the criminally under-seen Dredd.
Garland has a talent for dialogue that’s snappy without being unbelievable and smug and characters who are interesting and flawed. Of the four screenplays he has written, three of them are sci-fi; this seems to be the genre he’s most comfortable in. So it makes sense that his directorial debut is, in fact, a sci-fi film.
Ex Machina focuses on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at the world’s largest search engine (which we shall refer to as ˜Not-Google’), who wins the chance to spend a week in the reclusive residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner and creator of Not-Google. Once he is there, Nathan reveals the true reason he ran the lottery “ he needs a human component in the Turing test (a test in which a human interacts with an A.I. and sees if they can differentiate between the machine and a person). The A.I. that is being tested is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot that soon warns Caleb that Nathan may not be all he seems.
Washing away the memories of the last A.I. film we got (the atrocious Transcendence), Ex Machina comes along and not only presents a compelling view on artificial intelligence, but is one of the most staggeringly well-written films to do so in recent memory.
The entire film is ostensibly set in one location between three characters, and so it takes its time to develop and refine these characters. The conversations between Ava and Caleb are the film’s highlight; here we get a real sense of tension and relationship, wonderfully drawing a parallel with the at-times awkward conversations Caleb has with Nathan.
One directorial tic Alex Garland has down perfectly in his debut feature is atmosphere. There’s a wonderful sense of oppressive dread that something bad is going to happen but you can’t for the life of you figure out what. This is well contrasted with the Ava conversations, which have a genuine sense of warmth and connection, laced with the odd line or scene which increases the tension hanging over the story.
However, not all is fine and dandy with Ex Machina‘s direction. It’s clear he’s no Danny Boyle, or even Pete Travis. The cinematography is clearly trying to get across the sparse, clinical vibe all modern sci-fi films seem to go for, and the trouble with that is it gets very monotone and at times even dull to look at.
It may sound like a purely aesthetic issue, but film is a visual medium, and it makes the story difficult to grab on to, leaving your eyes to search for details where there are none. The shots clearly want to be drawing a contrast with nature, as while the indoor scenes are all washed out and clean, the outdoor sequences are ˜beautiful’. However, this is the Terrence Malick school of ˜beautiful’ shots, where you take nature and light it from the back with the sun so the object is partly in shadow. It doesn’t look good, and Garland clearly thinks it does, which makes it even more painful.
Don’t think this means you shouldn’t see Ex Machina because you really should. It’s one of the most interesting sci-fi films to come out in the last few years, and it’s nice to see sci-fi taking its time and not being worried by a frenetic pace and knowing that it can be methodical and slow at times in order to really express its ideas. Just don’t go in expecting a visual treat.