Alex Garland, author of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later…, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (opens in new tab), makes his directing debut with stylish sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, a chilly cerebral fable about artificial intelligence and human fallibility. The film touches an exposed nerve: the nagging fear that sometime in the not-too-distant future computers will outstrip and outsmart their creators.
Domhnall Gleeson's geeky protagonist Caleb is our eminently relatable stand-in for Garland’s fictional thought experiment. A programmer at a search-engine company, he wins a competition to spend a week with his reclusive billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote Alaskan retreat.
On arrival, he learns that his role is to carry out a Turing Test (opens in new tab) on Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence, android Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine whether or not she possesses consciousness.
The stunning Ava is a disquietingly sensual mix of the human and robotic (impressively achieved on screen by means of artful costumes and crafty CGI) and Caleb is very quickly smitten with her. For him, she passes the test. More crucial, however, is the question: how does she feel about him?
As the plot gathers pace, you may find yourself a step or two ahead of the story’s human characters, but that won’t stop you from being gripped and disconcerted. The casting is perfect, too, with Domhnall’s anxious everyman the ideal foil for Isaac’s arrogant alpha male and Vikander’s ambivalent heroine.
And with only one other character, Nathan’s silent helpmate Kyoko, played by Japanese dancer Sonoya Mizuno (opens in new tab), and (very nearly) a single setting, Garland creates a mood of gathering claustrophobia that enhances the unease provoked by his film’s perplexing ideas.
Certificate 15. Runtime 108 mins. Director Alex Garland.
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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