27 January 2015

Review: EX MACHINA

Alex Garland hasn't been getting nearly enough credit for consistently turning out terrific screenplays for British science-fiction cinema, with the revisionist horror of 28 Days Later, the survivalist parable of Sunshine, the heart-wrenching dystopia of Never Let Me Go and the comic book action of Dredd, Those were all amongst the best films of their respective years, and now Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina fits right in next to them.

Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a coder for the world's top search engine, Bluebook. As the winner of a Wonka-esque lottery of the company's employees, he is invited to spend a week at the remote compound of reclusive boss-man Nathan, a paranoid, hard-drinking tech genius played by Oscar Isaac. The purpose of his visit becomes clear when he meets Ava, an artificially intelligent cyborg who happens to look like Alicia Vikander. Nathan wants Caleb to undertake the Turing test with Ava, but between the three of them, she may not be the only one whose humanity is being evaluated.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we've seen A.I. covered by films as varied as Her and Transcendence. Ex Machina is at once more contained and larger than the former and also serves as a thoughtful and confident riposte to the Nolan-lite drudgery of the latter. Although other cast members cross into the periphery, it's really a stripped-down three hander that largely takes place in one location. It just so happens that the location is a stunning bit of production design with breathtaking exteriors and clinical, Kubrickian interiors. It also happens that the three hands- Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander- are tremendous.

Gleeson excels as Caleb, arguably the easiest of the three parts, beguiled by both his host and the subject he's asked to study and reprising the awkward geekiness that has made him so appealing in similar roles. Vikander brings nuance to a character who is explicitly both artificial and conscious, bringing small, human tells to complement the special effects. But Isaac often threatens to steal the show, as a paranoid, arrogant and all-knowing drunkard. It's the kind of role you'd normally look at Sam Rockwell for, right down to the obligatory disco dancing scene, but the charisma on show is entirely his own.

To say too much more about it would be to give the game away- Ex Machina is another excellent original film in what's shaping up to be one of the best Januaries to be at the cinema in years, where it's not just the Oscar contenders shoring up the dumping ground fodder. Garland's directorial d├ębut is marvellously self-assured and virtually flawless, a simple, almost slight story with an unsettling consciousness about its subject, backed up by three great performances and terrific, modestly deployed special effects.

Ex Machina is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

We need to have more movies like Ex Machina, frankly. Not clones of its robot-love triangle plot but more sci-fi stories that rely on concepts, characters and relationships more than special effects and empty plot. Because they’re a damn sight more satisfying that way.