by Allan Fish
(UK 2015 108m) DVD1/2
Mary in a black and white world
p Andrew MacDonald, Allon Reich d/w Alex Garland ph Rob Hardy ed Mark Day m Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury art Mark Digby, Katrina Mackay
Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Sonoyo Mizuno (Kyoko),
Early in Alex Garland’s directorial debut a reference is made to Lewis Carroll which, at the time, seems an apt one. Yet in hindsight it seems a deliberately misleading one, like a trail of crumbs to lead one not out of the maze but into its heart. It’s a film that jumps straight into its plot without any real set up, a sci-fi film which treats its protagonist – hero would be slightly misleading – like Charlie Bucket. He’s found the golden ticket, won a competition. He’s going to Willy Wonka’s factory, or in this case, to the remote mountain estate of a billionaire genius scientist who made his fortune from creating the world’s premier search engine. So Caleb arrives to be met by the reclusive Nathan who wastes little time in informing him that he’s completed his search into creating an A.I. prototype, which he calls Ava. Caleb is here to act as examiner of said prototype, to ask the necessary questions to see whether she is genuine artificial intelligence or merely simulating her emotions.
Before even watching Ex Machina one couldn’t help wonder whether Garland’s debut would be rather like Andrew Niccol’s, Gattaca. That had been an equally sleek low budget piece, literary more than cinematic and needing an established man behind the camera to properly visualise it. Ex Machina may seem similar on the surface, and has been criticised in some quarters for having an ending that can be seen coming – and that’s true – but it’s a film that plays on role reversal and changing preconceptions.
There are elements of many films here, but while it would be too easy to reel off the usual sci-fi suspects about androids and artificial intelligence, the film that one can’t shake off while watching is something very different indeed, Orson Welles’ Confidential Report. In that film, a megalomaniacal figure called Arkadin gets someone to look into his own past, but it transpires he’s actually there for quite the opposite reason, a key to not so much opening the pharaoh’s tomb as burying it in quicksand. Caleb believes what he’s told, that he’s there as examiner to Ava, and that Ava is the candidate, but the wheel turns so that the candidate becomes not only the examiner but the invigilator, too. While yes, the ending can be seen coming, that isn’t the point, that’s merely a way of passing the test but failing the exam. Even the title teases the audience, a reference we initially think to the old term deus ex machina to confirm the early reference to Nathan as a ‘God’ but in actual fact a reversal of the old tablecloth removal trick. In narrative terms, of course, a deus ex machina is a rabbit plucked from nowhere by a writer taking the easy option; we wait for it to come, but forget what the title tells us, the machina takes the deus out of the equation.
All of which is not to say that Ex Machina is perfect. Yet even its imperfections are in theme with its core message. Just as the Avas of Nathan’s world can peel off their own skin to reveal the android underneath – or do the exact opposite – in a way the tale feels like a thin bodysuit; just tug too hard and it’ll break. It’s easy to think of Garland’s film as Nathan thinks of Ava. To him, she’s just one of many models, a mere upgrade waiting to itself be upgraded. She’s like his Windows Vista and he’s already planning Windows 8, 9 and 10. And it’s still more of an ideas film than a visual feast, so one can’t quite escape the idea that Ex Machina may merely be a blueprint for even greater films to come later. Yet it passes its own Turing test – one can imagine Benedict Cumberbatch’s own Alan Turing smiling – and works as a piece of very real and possible sci-fi, a genre which too often forgets that there can be complexity in simplicity and room for ambiguity. Beautifully designed and shot, but so it should be, while Isaac channels his inner Joaquin Phoenix and Vikander is often startlingly subtle – you could almost swear she was testing the audience as well as Gleeson.