‘Dues Ex Machina’. Translation: God from the machine. A term which can be traced back to ancient Greek tragedy, where gods would often appear. It is more commonly used these days for us snotty critics to complain about contrived endings, such as the belated arrival of the gigantic eagles in Lord of The Rings, begging the question, “Where were you two-and-three-quarter films ago? cleaning your feathers??!” Writer/Director Alex Garland plays on this phrase in Ex Machina, in both ancient and contemporary sense, asking what happens when the line between between man and machine, and man and God, is blurred.
When sweet-natured coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to visit the home of genius programmer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), he is whisked off in a chopper to the mossy idyll, tucked on the crest of a glacial mountain, his home a low-lying mesh of glass, rock and polished concrete. Within the sunken retreat, Nathan unveils Ava (Alicia Vikander), which he believes may be the first fully sentient, conscious AI. However, as Caleb begins to believe Ava may be the real deal, relationships between the triumvirate begin to fracture, as allegiances and the very nature of consciousness and the self, are tested.
Ex Machina is an example of science fiction functioning in its highest form; the marriage of big ideas to a believable narrative, exploring concepts on a scale only sci-fi can. In this case it’s the age-old, yet perennially interesting, question of the self, and what it means to be human. Although added to this is the question of consciousness; Can Ava truly be conscious? How can you measure or gauge such an ineffable concept ? These themes underpin what becomes a psychological battle of subject and observers, weaving a brooding thriller chamber-piece with plenty of brain food to chew over, Garland knowing expertly when to probe such ontological ponderings and when to drive the story forwards.
Ex Machina also features two stars in the return of the greatest sci-fi saga of all time, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Domhnall Gleeson is the sweet but shrewd coder Caleb, affecting an excellent American accent, and Oscar Isaac as the master creator, with a god-like physique and facial hair, carving out a niche for himself, with Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and now Ex Machina, as a likeable on-screen asshole. Hopefully the next Star Wars installment will see plenty of interaction between the two rising stars, as together they are captivating, at once convincing friends, yet underneath giving off a pervading sense of mistrust and suspicion. Alicia Vikander is also impressive as Ava, nearly human yet not quite. Though flat voiced androids are nothing particularly new, and the relationship that forms between Caleb and Ava isn’t entirely convincing.
Without giving too much away, the plot leads in an interesting direction, thankfully avoiding some of the twist trappings of the thriller genre, tending aptly more towards Greek tragedy. The result is a thoroughly engaging, utterly enthralling, and shimmeringly beautiful sci-fi.
With Alex Garland, amongst the fast moving, high concept plots he spins, there is always room for unbridled, sensorial euphoria. Like the supermarket and day-trip sojourn in 28 Days Later, or the sublime, blissful end to Sunshine, one of the most beautiful scenes is where Ava may finally not just see the world, but to feel it, in vivid technicolour.