THROWBACK THURSDAY: EX MACHINA
Ex Machina is author, screenwriter, and frequent Danny Boyle collaborator, Alex Garland’s (The Beach, 28 Days Later) deeply affecting directorial debut.
It is also a part of an encouraging recent vanguard of cerebral, adult science fiction — characterised by the likes of Under the Skin, Her and even Snowpiercer — that deals in themes of technological anxiety, social alienation, surveillance, online personae, twenty first century gender politics and everyone’s favourite: the nature of our own humanity.
To approach Ex Machina unspoilt would do your cinematic experience the greatest service, and with that in mind, I offer a broad sketch of the plot to best preserve the pleasures of unpacking Garland’s superb narrative.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, Frank) is your prototypical, callow geek. A better than decent coder, maybe even one of the best, he works at global tech giant Blue Book (think Facebook once it’s properly assimilated the entire ‘net and made it even more blancmange and antiseptic).
Image credit: Universal Pictures
As the film opens, Caleb wins a Blue Book staff lottery granting him a week’s audience with the organisation’s reclusive, genius savant (not to mention booze hound) CEO, the squat, hirsute broceph Nathan, played with equal measures of beguiling frat-boy charm and snotty Promethean hubris by the ever-chameleonic Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis).
Delivered to Nathan’s expansive, remote compound via helicopter, the true nature of Caleb’s visit is soon revealed: the tech genius has developed an AI (artificial intelligence) in the form of the sleek, beguiling android (or gynoid, to be precise) Ava (Alicia Vikander, Testament of Youth), and Caleb is to conduct a series of Turing test inspired interviews. The ultimate goal is to assess whether the synthetic being manifests as convincingly human, with all that entails.
Exquisitely and thoughtfully designed, Nathan’s research facility — showcasing shades of Bond villain — is as much a character as the film’s four bipedal foils (Nathan’s only companion, it seems, is his eerily silent companion, Kyoko). A warren of glass cages, antiseptic living quarters and accommodating spaces eked out of the earth itself, the facility’s claustrophobic corridors allow Garland’s clinical (dare I say, Kubrickian?) lens to exacerbate the tense, uneasy tone with sporadic bursts of lurid, sinister reds, offsetting and contrasting with the lab’s cool machined surfaces and rough-hewn natural surfaces.
Elsewhere, seamless, low-key effects facilitate Vikander’s beguiling performance — a fluid tapestry of innocence, carnality, and a longing for more, while Portishead alum Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury offer terse, minimalist mood queues, ratcheting up our sense of unease with ruthless precision.
To reveal much more would be to spoil the pleasures of that rare phenomenon: an original science fiction film with loads to say.
So, without giving the game away, just what are you in for when you settle in to experience Garland’s fastidiously constructed entertainment?
Ex Machina deals in monumental themes, working on a sweeping canvas encompassing ruminations on scopophilia and the male gaze, post-human angst, the ubiquity of surveillance in our contemporary lives, male entitlement, creation myths and their inherent nihilism, humanity’s quest to render itself redundant, social media’s sinister profiling capabilities… you get the picture.
To attempt an exhaustive list would be folly, outside of an extended essay (tempting).
Yes, it’s a dense, nuanced endeavour. Ex Machina is a throwback to the meditative, social commentary oriented science fiction of the early seventies.
Garland has gifted you a compelling, unsettling meditation on our early twenty first century condition- ensure you experience it on an appropriately wide screen as a matter of some urgency.