It says a lot about the legacy of British mathematician Alan Turing that we’re still discussing his ideas around 50 years after his sad death. The analytical mind who helped crack the German Enigma code with the most sophisticated computers yet built during World War II, Turing’s work in the field of artificial intelligence was similarly groundbreaking.
Ex Machina, the directorial debut from novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd), owes a great deal to Alan Turing. For one thing, its premise is directly inspired by what we now call the Turing Test – his suggestion that, if a machine were sophisticated into fooling someone communicating with it into believing that it could think and reason, then it really could think and reason.
In Ex Machina, 26-year-old programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is given the task of performing his own version of the Turing Test. Caleb works for Blue Book, the world’s biggest search engine, programmed and owned by reclusive billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When his name comes up in a company-wide competition, Caleb’s sent off by helicopter to Nathan’s remote enclave – actually a high-tech research facility nestled among verdant mountains.
There, Caleb’s introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot who, were it not for her translucent torso and limbs, could easily pass for human. But are Ava’s emotions genuine, or simulation? This is what Caleb has to decide through a week-long series of interviews, which take place in an eerily sterile room akin to a drained fish tank.
Garland’s affinity for the sci-fi genre, evident in his earlier screenplays, is all over Ex Machina. Although its special effects are almost seamless – witness Ava’s a superb amalgam of flesh-and-blood performance and CGI – Garland’s film is first and foremost a psychological thriller. Everything, from its brightly-lit cinematography and geometric set design, is calculatedly put together to leave us unsettled and scanning the screen for clues.
The fillm relies heavily on the performances of its trio of actors, since its story is as elegantly minimal as Nathan’s bachelor pad-slash-research facility. All three performances are superb. Gleeson’s turn is effortless; his initial bewilderment and later suspicion reflects our own. Oscar Isaac is equal parts sinister and beguiling, as his character alternately downs industrial quantities of alcohol in the evenings and atones by pumping iron the next morning. He’s necessarily glib and difficult to read, and as narcissistic as you might expect from someone who became unfeasibly rich while still a teenager. At some points, it’s easy to wonder whether his genius is really an act.
Vikander is the film’s fulcrum; she’s both its emotional centre and its greatest mystery. Her performance is subtle and restrained, and Garland gives her an almost ethereal presence. Like Ava’s character, it’s hard not to scan her every twitch and fleeting glance for clues. Just how human is she, really?
Ex Machina is a poker game of obscure agendas and blurred morals, convincingly written and refreshing in its elegance and lack of narrative clutter. Ultimately, it’s the moral questions that linger the most: if and when we finally do create artificial life, what duty of care would we have to it? How would it reflect our own failings as a species? What would our treatment of it say about us as human beings – our desires, and our capacity for exploitation and cruelty?
Ex Machina is an assured debut, loaded with uneasy techno-fetishism, unexpected moments of humour (including a great Ghostbusters reference and some fleet-footed dancing) and subtly affecting performances.
If you’re looking for an intelligent, disquieting science fiction film, this one’s unmissable.
Ex Machina is out in UK cinemas on the 21st January.
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