Ex Machina review: intelligent by design

Alex Garland’s directorial debut is a gorgeously constructed, elegant distillation of familiar notions about artificial intelligence

Film Title: Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

Genre: Sci-Fi

Running Time: 108 min

Fri, Jan 23, 2015, 00:00

   

It would be asking a great deal to expect Alex Garland’s directorial debut to reveal any new truths about artificial intelligence. Cinema has poked and prodded the subject with such enthusiasm that, long before the machines have begun talking back, we’ve become a tad blasé about it all.

Even Disney’s upcoming Big Hero Six tackles the nagging quandaries and, like Garland’s chamber piece, that cartoon comes to the conclusion that our awareness of a consciousness’s artificiality may not prohibit us from feeling empathy. Still, Ex Machina remains a gorgeously constructed, elegant distillation of familiar notions. All three principals are first-class. Cinematographer Rob Hardy (who recently flattered lead Alicia Vikander in the very different Testament of Youth) scrapes away colour to reveal the flinty base beneath. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score throbs with menace.

The convincingly American Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young computer programmer who, like a latter-day Charlie Bucket, finds himself invited to the guarded lair of a notorious genius. Our digital Willy Wonka turns out to be archetypically strange computer magnate Nathan ( Oscar Isaac). Muscular, gnomic, often drunk, the reclusive egghead exhibits some of Steve Jobs’ messianic tendencies, but is much less inclined to view the body as a temple.

Nathan has a task for his underling. He has created an elegant robot (bits of Vikander broken up with stands of CGI) infused with the most sophisticated artificial intelligence yet devised. Nathan explains that Caleb is to administer the Turing Test on his extraordinary creation.

Wised-up readers will be aware that the test – aimed at determining whether a consciousness is organic or created – cannot be carried out by an observer who already knows the subject to be artificial. Something else is clearly going on. Garland’s script edges us towards one red herring and then adeptly nudges the plot in an entirely different direction.

The technology is effectively realised and the Pacific north-western setting – which turns each of Nathan’s picture windows into a luscious screensaver – adds some needed warmth to the otherwise icily precise images. But the film’s main selling points are the intricate relations between the main characters. Closer to Caryl Churchill’s stage play A Number than to, say, THK-1138, this tight, tense virtual three- hander sings with creative disharmony. Cult status awaits.