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Ex Machina: smart science fiction

Film & TV

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Many sci-fi fans will have been eagerly awaiting this directorial debut by Alex Garland, British writer of the adrenalin-charged zombie apocalypse movie 28 Days Later and space thriller Sunshine.

This time, Garland has turned his attention to the intriguing subject of artificial intelligence in a movie that is lower budget, more cerebral and less action-packed.

Ex Machina begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer/coder at a large internet search engine, winning the “golden ticket” in a work competition that sees him flown by helicopter to the remote property of the company’s wealthy CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Caleb – whose initially awkward, star-struck demeanour is true to stereotype – is to spend a week with his boss, although the purpose of the “holiday” in what initially seems like an idyllic, sophisticated mountain retreat is not immediately clear.


Ex Machina is set against a stunning Norwegian backdrop.

What is obvious is that there’s something a bit off about Nathan, an over-bearing, arrogant man with a fondness for the bottle and lifting weights. The impression only increases when he asks his visitor to sign a strict and unusually intrusive confidentiality clause.

Caleb’s task, it emerges, is to undertake the Turing Test with Nathan’s latest artificial intelligence creation – a sexy robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with an enigmatic smile and a body that would make R2D2 blush.

The aim of the test is to see whether Ava’s intelligence and behaviour are indistinguishable from that of a human; whether she exhibits consciousness. But the daily “sessions” become increasingly more flirtatious and conspiratorial until Caleb becomes confused over who he should trust.

The strength of the acting and stylish direction helps hold the audience’s attention in a film where the action takes place largely in one place with a small cast.

Garland builds the tension with a sinister soundtrack and close-up and cut-away shots that emphasis the creepy, claustrophobic and voyeuristic nature of the high-tech, isolated setting. There are also some interesting gender issues at play, and touches of wit in a script that explores the “big questions” surrounding humanity and its creations.

Many sci-fi fans and critics have been impressed, with New Scientist describing Ex Machina as “a much-needed shot in the arm for smart science fiction”.

For me, however, the plot never completely fulfils its promise. There are twists and turns, sure, but some of them are disappointingly predictable. And while Vikander’s performance succeeds in garnering empathy for Ava – a tough challenge, where cyborgs are concerned – it may not be sufficient for audience members to feel fully invested in her fate.

Ex Machina is a stylish and cerebral psychological thriller; it’s just not terribly exciting.

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