Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ex Machina tops our favourite films of 2015 list

As both a novelist and screenwriter, Alex Garland has repeatedly tapped the dramatic value of the claustrophobic community – from the crusty utopian tribe of The Beach (2000), the dystopian school of his Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go (2010), to the locked down tower tower block of Dredd (2012). Now, with his directorial debut Ex Machina, he pushes this even further – three characters, one remote location. It is as if Garland has been perfecting a formula over the years. The result is that Ex Machina is arguably his most successful and satisfying creation yet. There are some big ideas housed in these closing walls. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman? And what happens to a man who is left alone and given everything he could ever desire except, perhaps, love and human companionship?

Ex Machina is old school cerebral science fiction. It is executed with the scrutiny we would expect from say Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), or more recently, Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), but it has a darkly satirical pulse too that distinguishes it and warms its appeal. At one point, Garland throws in an unexpected and cheeky reference to Dan Aykroyd's spectral blow job in Ghostbusters (1984), at another, there is a spontaneous disco freak out to Oliver Cheatham's Get Down Saturday Night.

Which in no way means Ex Machina doesn't take itself seriously. Its bursts of relative levity apply a layer of discord to a plot that ratchets tension from the very moment of Caleb's (Domnhall Gleeson) arrival on the reclusive Nathan's (Oscar Isaac) vast estate, which, with its sterile atmosphere, exquisite rockeries and waterfall straddling aspect wouldn't look out of place in the third act of a James Bond movie. And when Caleb reluctantly agrees to sign "the mother of all NDAs" and consents to staying in a windowless basement room, you get the unsettling sense he is voluntarily incarcerating himself... with Silicon Valley's answer to Dr. Moreau.

Caleb can see that Ava is a robot but can she still convince him that she has independent human consciousness? So begins an unnerving taut three-hander set in the windowless rooms and corridors of Nathan's custom built billionaire's palace, where motivations and manipulations are constantly shifting.

It might be harder to swallow if it wasn't so well played. Steady rising star Gleeson plays Caleb as polite and diffident, yet sharp and trauma hardened. In contrast, Isaac (set to co-star with Gleeson in J.J. Abrams' Star Wars The Force Awakens) imbues technology mogul Nathan with the tarnished glamour and aggressive self-assurance of a jaded rock star. He is a hipster bearded alpha male whose ego is so all-consuming he only needs himself to party, and who pummels punchbags as a hangover cure. Then there is Alicia Vikander (who co-starred with Gleeson in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina) as Ava.

"Is it strange to have made something that hates you?" Ava purrs – her velvet venom as much an indication of her humanity as anything Nathan's rigged test can reveal. 

With the help of Double Negative's laudable visual effects, Ava is at once familiar, recalling Sonny in I, Robot (2004) and elements of Björk in Chris Cunningham's All Is Full Of Love promo, yet unique, with a glowing midriff power core on display. Her heart, in a sense, is for all to see. But it is Vikander's possession of the spirit in this machine which truly marks Ava out. With a ballerina's poise, her every movement from footfall to facial twitch is performed with pinpoint precision. Mechanical enough for her to convince as an automaton, yet with an organic tactility which nourishes her impressive chemistry with Gleeson while the pair get to know each other from either side of a high security glass screen.

For all her co-stars' solid work, Vikander is undoubtedly the star here, and flourishes brilliantly under Garland's steady gaze and guidance. Between them, director and actress may even have crafted an icon – both science fiction and, surprisingly, feminist.

A fable of genius, hubris and madness, Ex Mchina is at once elegant and cerebral, yet satirical and macabre. Garland's directorial debut is his best work yet, while Vikander's bold performance will short your circuits.

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