Creepy, chilly experiment's a success

THRILLER: Vikander's Ava (above) and the other protagonists circle one another warily, probing weaknesses and exploiting friendships.


    Jul 09, 2015

    Creepy, chilly experiment's a success

    EX MACHINA (M18)

    Science fiction/108 minutes/Opens today

    Rating: 5/5

    The story:

    A socially inept software designer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a trip to the remote homestead of his company's chief executive, the reclusive Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a legend in tech circles and a general misanthrope.

    Caleb is told that he is there to interview Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android made by Nathan, to see if she passes for human. As the days pass, he finds that there is more to the tests - and to Ava and Nathan - than he has been told.

    THERE are many reasons to go watch this sci-fi chamber piece about two men and a babe-bot, but the top reason would be for the seamless intertwining of commentary and story.

    Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 1996; 28 Days Later, 2002; Never Let Me Go, 2010) makes his directing debut in this small-budget, low-key thriller, which he also wrote.

    He extracts maximum value from the limited resources. The visuals - helicopter shots of the landscape around the Nathan home and the translucent, sea anemone-like shells of the artificial humans - are as interesting as they should be, and not any more.

    Instead of dishing out spectacle, Garland invests energy in character, a trait he shares with makers of character-driven works of "hard" or realistic science fiction such as Moon (2009).

    Locked in the Nathan ranch, the three protagonists circle one another warily, probing weaknesses, exploiting friendships, banking on the hope that the others are who they appear to be on the surface and will do as they promise.

    In a figurative sense, the trio are astronauts in a capsule at the edge of human understanding, each one not fully trusting the other two, yet relying on them to perform as programmed. Will the one with the most humanity - or the least - win the game?

    Films like this are fond of hitting the pause button now and then, so that the leads can debate the humanity - or lack thereof - residing in The Other, whether it be an alien, a clever ape or a sentient machine like Ava.

    When Caleb and Nathan argue, Garland makes sure that they do it because there is a story-driven need for it, not because, as so often happens in "smart" movies, the film-maker wants to prove he took the A-level General Paper exam.

    And when they disagree, the men listen and react to each other the way real people do, rather than turn into speech-making sock puppets.

    Garland prefers to insert commentary into the action, rather than let characters gab about what might happen if humans - in particular, men - had the power to create humanoid minions.

    To see artificial women like the servant-bot Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as she caters to Nathan's appetites is to see the robo-theme park of Westworld (1973) come to life. Except the fantasies are creepy, of fetishisation and misogyny, not of duels in the Old West.

    Garland hints at more than he shows and he is not interested in firm answers. The mood here is chilly, an impression gained from the blue-grey tint of the print and from how he has taken the sombre, terse tone associated with Scandinavian directors.

    Ex Machina is screening only at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower.