Screenwriter Alex Garland has penned some excellent works of modern fantasy cinema, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, and stays firmly in the science fiction realm with his directorial début. Here, he explores the consequences of truly successful artificial intelligence not with bombastic, apocalyptic effects or high-minded science but, ostensibly, through the prism of human emotion. His futuristic vision is no less ominous for its relatively low-key approach but, disappointingly, falls back on genre cliche and a tired depiction of gender relations.
After unassuming but talented coder Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins an office sweepstake, he is whisked off to spend a week at the home of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of omnipotent search engine Bluebook. Soon after he arrives at Nathan’s isolated retreat, however, Caleb learns that he has in fact been selected to test out a top secret creation; a female A.I named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb carries out his intensive Turing Test, his feelings for Ava grow increasingly complicated – particularly when he realises that Nathan is not quite the man he seems.
Undeniably, Ex_Machina looks absolutely stunning from the first; the effects are breathtakingly good, with Ava’s synthetic, robotic body rendered in flawless detail. In the hands of production designer Mark Rigby (Dredd), Nathan’s home is both fantastical playground and prison bunker, made even more foreboding thanks to some effective, shadowy camerawork from cinematographer Rob Hardy (who also lensed Vikander’s recent wartime drama The Testament of Youth).
The performances, too, are solid; Gleeson (Unbroken, Frank) showcases the Everyman likeability that is becoming his trademark, while Isaac is the very opposite of his laid back Llewyn Davis as the bullish, paranoid and increasingly unhinged Nathan; characteristic similarities with Frankenstein that seem entirely intentional. As the film’s centrepiece, Vikander embodies Ava’s not quite humanness with skill and is most certainly a commanding presence.
Which is why it’s such a travesty that Ex_Machina ultimately does her such an injustice. For while the narrative may glance on many intriguing science fiction ideas (what singularity might mean for the human race, the implications of the increasing social prevalence of tech companies), Garland instead focuses on rather more base (and obvious) theories about how a red-blooded man may interact with an attractive female robot, whether through perversion or loneliness. While Nathan attempts to explain away this approach with an impassioned speech about how sexuality is fundamental to true A.I., the fact that he spends more time drunkenly describing Ava’s naturalistic fuckability than celebrating her brain lays bare his, and the film’s, true feelings towards her place and potential.
Garland’s decision to come at this subject from the point of view of two emotionally flawed individuals is, in itself, entirely reasonable; after all, true artificial intelligence will surely play to our weaknesses as well as our strengths. His reduction of such far-reaching, important ideas to such clichéd gender politics, however, is not. Staging the film as a self-contained chamber play could have resulted in a fascinating psychological battle of man and machine; instead, it facilitates this uncomfortable and claustrophobic battle of the sexes, in which all the players, male and female, are rendered in one dimension. Nathan is the villain of the piece, driven mad by his genius (of course), Caleb is the nice guy turned hero and Ava takes the role of innocent damsel in distress. While Ava reveals herself to be rather more than she first appears, masquerading as feminist heroine in the process, in reality it’s a twist that compounds the film’s broad gender stereotyping.
Because, despite Ex_Machina‘s futuristic sensibilities and glorious state-of-the-art visuals, it simply repeats the same tired message of a million films before it; men are either aggressors, saps or heroes and women are either victims, love interests or cold-hearted bitches. This is cemented by the fact that Ava’s consciousness has been constructed from the collated behaviour of Bluebook’s human users; in other words, she is not just the stand-alone creation of an unhinged, misogynistic individual but the distilled essence of myriad real world women.
Not only that, her success as an A.I. seems to rely entirely on her ability to use her femininity, her sexuality, to be emotionally manipulative. This idea, even more than the lingering shots of Ava’s form and the unnecessary inclusion of the (entirely mute) Kyoko (Sonoya Muizuna), who only exists to serve Nathan’s every need, makes the underlying message of Ex_Machina rather more backward than its futuristic facade would suggest.
UK Release Date: January 23, 2015