If you call yourself a sci-fi fan, then you had better know the name Alex Garland. The writer behind genre movie classics like 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go (amongst others), Garland has helped bring to the screen movies with big ideas that ground themselves in big emotions. After having the likes of Danny Boyle and Mark Romanek bring his work to life, his latest project Ex Machina is the first time Garland has directed something himself. And even when those beginner weaknesses shine through, he’s still thrown together enough fascinating ideas and great actors to make something dense and compelling.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lonely coder at tech giant Blue Book (think Apple meets Google) who ends up winning a company contest to go and meet the reclusive founder Nathan (a hippie, bearded Oscar Isaac). When he arrives at Nathan’s massive estate however, he finds out that he was really recruited to help Nathan test his new project: artificial intelligence. Caleb agrees, and spends a week testing the humanoid robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), but the further they progress in these tests the more he senses something off about the people, this place, and even himself.
It’s part Frankenstein part Her, with the added sexual dynamics thrown in that threaten to turn the whole film into a teenage boy’s gross fantasy. Thankfully Garland is more aware than that and spins things in a different direction, focusing a lot on the idea of consciousness and playing with just how much Ava understands. As a director, he has a surprisingly excellent mastery of integrating effects to make them seem natural, but then struggles with shooting basic conversational scenes in a way that doesn’t feel awkward.
Regardless of his strengths or weaknesses, Garland was never going to be the star of this film: that title belongs to Vikander, through and through. The Swedish actress has turned in great work in costume dramas like A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina, and here she makes good on the talent showcased in those movies. She’s both tragic and terrifying, often within the same scene. Isaac is also a lot of fun, in a role that’s part Mark Zuckerberg but closer to The Dude (he’s constantly calling Caleb “Dude” and chugging beers), and Gleeson is fine in a role that doesn’t give him all that much to do.
Would Ex Machina be better if Garland had gotten someone like Boyle to direct instead? Maybe, but it still establishes him as an even bigger name in sci-fi and as someone’s first feature this is still a huge feat. If Chappie didn’t satisfy you earlier this year (and if it did, how?), you’ll probably find Garland’s take on AI to be a far more captivating and entertaining one.