Ex Machina: when you see this sci-fi thriller, you’ll never stop thinking about it

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: REX</span>
Photograph: REX

Alex Garland’s next film, Men, is due for release in June. If you’re intrigued by the mysterious trailer, or you enjoyed either his acclaimed TV series Devs, or the sci-fi horror of Annihilation, then Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, is well worth investigating.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition at his workplace to visit the home of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb travels to his vast and remote Norwegian estate and, upon arrival, discovers the contest was a smokescreen. Identified as a gifted employee, Caleb has been summoned to work on Nathan’s latest project: an artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It is Caleb’s job to administer the Turing Test (named after its creator, mathematician Alan Turing), to determine whether Ava has genuine consciousness. If the tester cannot determine if the subject is machine or human, then the test is passed.

Related: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Still brilliantly shocking at 60

Ava is the enigma at the centre of everything and Vikander portrays her with a wealth of humanity. When Caleb and Ava meet, there is no Uncanny Valley – the feeling of revulsion or unease when presented with a realistic machine – rather, he is immediately drawn to Ava. Before long they share a mutual attraction. But as their discussions continue, Ava confides in Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson.
Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Photograph: REX

With this tense, psychological thriller, Garland asks the biggest question of all – what does it mean to be alive? Ex Machina is essentially 108 minutes of three people sitting around talking to each other, but this existential grappling is so compelling that it is impossible not to be drawn into both the story and the bigger questions that motivate it. The question of Ava’s consciousness is only the start, because Caleb’s decision will have huge consequences. If we believe Ava is alive, will she be allowed to live that life on her own terms? Will her artificial life be held to the same standard as human life? Ava is corporate property, so at what point does the machine transcend its origin as an object and become a person?

But Ex Machina is still, at heart, a paranoid thriller and the three central performances from Vikander, Gleeson and Isaac make the story just as absorbing as the questions it asks. They inhabit these conflicting, manipulative personalities so completely, we’re never quite sure of the truth – or whose truth – to believe.

Nathan is initially welcoming, but despite his pleas for Caleb to ignore the employer-employee dynamic, Caleb is always aware of the power disparity between them. Isolated by both his wealth and geographical location, his only (human) company in his vast tech facility is his housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who does not speak English; a paranoid safeguard for Nathan’s trade secrets. His darker side emerges: he drinks heavily, becomes aggressive and is prone to the bouts of egotism. He considers Caleb to be the weaker man, both intellectually and physically, and never misses a chance to demonstrate his machismo – be it skipping to the top of a fjord while Caleb struggles, or pointedly lifting weights while engaged in a daily debrief.

The score, from Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Ben Salisbury, adds an extra dimension as an ambient sonic atmosphere crafted to match the dark, labyrinthine corridors of the tech facility and the sweeping panoramas of the Norwegian countryside. Garland’s career as a novelist means he knows how to tell a good story and Ex Machina is an accomplished thriller. But like the very best science fiction, its big ideas are only partially contained by the script. Ex Machina is that rare type of film that draws you in so completely, you will never stop thinking about it.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting