Plenty of great minds have made it clear that artificial intelligence might not be the best way to go. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and James Cameron all plead the case that the world would go to hell in a hardwired handbasket and that to tinker with advanced machinery, to quote Elon Musk - 'would be summoning the demons' - and probably Skynet. Now in steps Alex Garland; long time writer, first time director and his daunting Ex Machina, who backs up the case in a simple and very unsettling sci-fi.
The Beach and 28 Days Later scribe pits two soon-to-be star warring talents in a matter of man and fascinating machine. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, the coder with the golden ticket sent to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his boss and head of a supereme search engine. A merging of Willy Wonka and Count Dracula, Isaac's tech titan is an intriguing recluse, tucked away in a mountain infested vista. Of course much like the chocolate maker and the claret loving loner, Nathan is doing more than he's letting on, something that our low-level desk jockey is slow to cotton on to. The curtain gets slightly pulled back on the first day when Caleb meets Ava, Nathan's highly advanced AI who will change the world. From here the most advanced Turing test begins, that could see mankind's greatest achievement being unveiled and Caleb losing his own sanity and questioning his humanity as a result.
Here is where the cogs begin to turn and wires are crossed and cut between Isaac, Gleeson and the puzzle with a personality (or not?), Alicia Vikander. The former pair work wonderfully together, moving the cerebral chess around the board. Nathan clearly thinks he's set the game up for his guest, but Caleb is no basement-dwelling IT man, soon finding himself siding with the other housemate who is truly a sight to behold.
You hear Ava before you see her, as a whirring fills the theatre like someone just switched on a hard-working laptop. Then Vikander appears and brings an impressive performance with her. An artificial intelligence wielding an almost angelic presence, Vikander echoes Blade Runner's Sean Young - a ghost in the machine if you will. Displaying an innocence that could be artificial in itself, seeing this fresh-faced woman put together by neon-lit bits and pieces is a subtle and effective visual that works in every way. It's also the hardest hurdle that Garland manages to leap over effortlessly in his directorial debut, and why wouldn't he? Having already handled various futuristic elements in the likes of 28 Days Later and Dredd, here Garland expands his capabilities as a storyteller.
Confining Ex Machina to a few impressively lit walls with only four characters to inhabiting it, we're given the chance to focus more on the thought-provoking questions that are asked and the rather worrying answers it reaches. Admittedly, Ava isn't the scene stealing character she could be, rather the catalyst that creates the interesting disussions between Nathan and Caleb. It questions the uncertain future that lies ahead with man and machine and allows the film to explore what it is to be human, something that many sci-fi's tread over but only few succeed as well as this. Great performances all round (particularly Gleeson and Isaac), it also puts Garland on a career path that we really hope he stays on.
Against some of the major league sci-fi movie makers, Garland has entered with a small scale but equally effective tale. Polished and pristine in its look and thought-provoking in its storytelling, Ex Machina is a strong sign of a writer that should've jumped in the directors chair long ago. Also, rest assured for Episode VII as by the looks of things, the force is strong with these two.