This is the first film of 2015 to really blow me away - and it was such a surprise when I had no inkling that it would turn out to be so. On the subject of humanoid robotics, I'd expected this might be something on the lines of Spielberg's 'A.I.', which had failed to impress me as much as some of its admirers. Both films also play with the notion of artificial intelligence as manifested by a human replicant being so close to that of the human mind that if there's any difference at all, can it be detected?
In the event I found this 'Ex Machina' an altogether more accomplished and interesting film and, astonishingly, it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, also this film's writer. What a terrific start he's made!
A variation on the 'Frankenstein' theme, Domhnall Gleason ('Calvary' & 'Frank', both 2014) plays computer worker, Caleb, who unexpectedly finds himself winning a place to spend some time at a secluded mountain retreat in America of the creator of a robot, who wishes him to interact with this 'creature' to see if he can detect any differences in intellect from a real person. The 'creation' is able to use logic, make enquiries of the visitor, emote, all the mental functions one would expect if it had been human, its only observable giveaway as to its true nature being that its physical body has transparent 'skin' in places - abdomen, neck, brain, parts of limbs - which allow one to see its inner computer workings. It's difficult to say much more without revealing how the story develops, a story which, after the first few minutes, becomes so loaded with tension that it gets to be almost palpable as the underlying intentions of Nathan, the 'creator', in his use of Caleb become questionable. It's virtually a four-actor piece, the final member of the quartet being Nathan's put-upon, brusquely-treated and silent female servant.
The robot, 'Ava', is Alicia Vikander, whom I only very recently saw as the lead in 'Testament of Youth', while Nathan is (yet again, and very pleasingly) Oscar Isaac, someone of whose name I'd barely heard a year ago and who is rapidly becoming one of my very favourite actors. No matter what part he plays - and in the four films I've seen him in up to now, they are all very different roles - he displays such on-screen authority, range and consummate skill that I'm already running out of words to express my admiration. I look forward to seeing him sometime as romantic lead.
This role of his caps them all up to now, so much so that for some reason I hadn't realised that he was going to be in this film, and even when he appeared I hadn't realised it was him for a good part of the film. (As is frequently the case nowadays, there are no opening credits or title at all). He wears a thick beard, as he did for 'Inside Llewyn Davies', only this time even bushier, and as magnificently woofy as hell. In fact my immediate reaction on seeing him was that he could just as easily have stepped straight out of that most interesting blog of 'Fearsome Beard'
My only real complaint is that regular one of inaudibility, when 'Ava' speaks in such a soft, gentle voice that, especially during her early exchanges with Caleb, were it not that we see her lips moving and hear his replies, I wouldn't have been aware that she'd said anything at all. No such problems with the two males.
I never knew which direction the film would take and its conclusion I did not foresee. It's a remarkable work and though it hasn't been universally given the praise which I am happy to accord it, I have to own that it pleased me personally no end.
As for Alex Garland, I thought the Danny Boyle film (with Leo DiCaprio in 2000) based on his book, 'The Beach' was good, as was the novel, though I'd rather read the book again than re-see the film. After that I read 'The Tesseract' twice, but just couldn't get a handle on it, so gave up on Garland - prematurely and mistakenly it seems. This film rekindles my interest in him in a big way.
It goes without saying that not everyone will share my intense liking for 'Ex Machina', but if you think it might be your 'bag' then I do urge you to go further and give it a try. It's my cinematic 'event' of this year so far..............8.5.
8 hours ago