Alicia Vikander as Ava

Ex Machina is an absorbing piece of speculative fiction. Strong on ideas and characterisation, Alex Garland (The Beach) capably draws on his skills as a novelist in this confident directorial debut that lies somewhere between Frankenstein and Spike Jonze’s Her.

Alicia Vikander as Ava
Alicia Vikander as Ava

Revolving entirely around three characters, this is an engaging piece of cinema despite a few slow patches. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is a reclusive billionaire, a kind of pugilistic Zuckerberg, who lures the fresh-faced Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a low level employee, to his secluded luxury bunker in order to test his artificial intelligence creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb enters the test knowing that Ava is a robot, but will he come to accept her as a real, sentient being through a series of monitored interactions?

It’s clear from the outset that Nathan is not to be trusted, a narcissist who lost connection with human society some time back, preferring the company of technology and alcohol. As the film progresses, however, the bigger question for Caleb is whether his growing connection with Ava is genuine.

The film is visually striking; the winter wilderness surrounding Nathan’s lair effectively conveys chilly isolation, while the sparse interiors of the bunker create a feeling of claustrophobia. A highlight of the film’s design is Ava; reflecting Caleb’s changing perspective, she appears more human as the story progresses.

Throwing up interesting questions about what it means to be human and our reliance on technology, Ex Machina may be treading a familiar science fiction path, but does so with intelligence and insight. It’s refreshing that Garland trusts his audience, with notable restraint from a first time director.

Like any good drama, this piece is character driven, and succeeds largely on the strength of three adept performances, particularly from Vikander, who manages to evoke our empathy while conveying just the right amount of difference as the artificial lifeform.

While the build-up is excellent, drawing the viewer into the psychological interplay, the film never quite manages to land a knockout punch to match the groundwork laid by Garland in the first half. It does, however, draw to a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion that resists the temptation to take the easy way out.

Ex Machina is released in cinemas on 7 May.

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor

Picture courtesy of @ExMachinaMovie Twitter