Ex Machina

Ex Machina

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Do androids dream of flowery summer frocks and high heels? Or are they just 'drawn' that way thanks to our input? Sexuality, creation and conformity are just some of the high-end concepts that inhabit the confined spaces of Alex Garland's directorial debut. While his ability to construct a tight story has long been proven on the likes of Sunshine and 28 Days Later, he displays a control over visual imagery here that shows his talents don't just end at a full stop.

Nature and the manmade, the virtual and the real come into sharp collision from the outset, when we see programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) from the perspective of his computer monitor. The sounds are muffled, but his joy is obvious from the expression on his face as he reads an email saying he has won a company lottery to go and visit its mysterious head at his home. As the realisation dawns on him, the virtual compliments are already cluttering his screen in the form of messages from his colleagues, long before someone physically congratulates him.

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Fast forward a few days and he's had a hike from a helicopter to the middle-of-nowhere pad where his boss Nathan (Oscar Issacs) lives. There are shades of Frank Lloyd Wright about the way the house grows out from the rock face but there is nothing organic about the hermetically sealed glass hallways that are found inside, each accessed by a keycard given to Caleb with a catch - he won't know which ones will open until he tries. Nathan is is a similarly unnerving mix, talking like a hipster and insisting he wants to "get to know" his employee but with a volatile, hard-drinking sense of threat never far away.

After signing the disclosure agreement from hell, Nathan tells him the real reason for his visit. He has created an artificially intelligent robot, Ava (Alicia Wikander), constructing her 'brain' from every search item ever input into his company's search engine - and he wants Caleb to perform the Turing test - namely, to see whether she can fully pass as human. The fact that Ava, despite her petite human features, shapely figure and nice hands - all her bits are apparently also fully sensitive/fuctional, Nathan confides - is otherwise visibly made up of electric blue circuitry that buzzes when she moves will only add to the strength of the test, says Nathan. If she convinces Caleb her responses come from an emotional, 'human' place, then bingo!

Caleb, quizzing Ava from the opposite side of a glass wall, is immediately taken with her shy intelligence and ability to read his 'micro-expressions' ... and so the stage is set for a psychological thriller as we try to work out who is the most truthful of the trio, who is manipulating who - and where our own allegiance and sympathy lies.

The pleasure of Garland's film lies more in the deeper questions of what makes us 'human' and in the tensions generated between Caleb, Nathan and Ava - with all three actors rising to the challenge - than in the plot, which suffers from predictability. It may also seem harsh to criticise something so small as the noise Ava makes when she moves - but in an intimate chamber piece like this, the devil is in the detail and that particular embellishment is fundamentally at odds with at least two important plot points. Still, in a genre that is often more concerned with bright surfaces than bright ideas, this is a welcome addition.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2015
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A programmer goes on retreat to his boss' hideaway and is asked to help evaluate an artificial intelligence android.
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Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Chelsea Li, Evie Wray, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Symara A. Templeman, Deborah Rosan, Ramzan Miah, Elina Alminas, Johanna Thea, Claire Selby

Year: 2015

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK

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