Review – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

Four Frames – 28 Days Later (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. To tie in with Frightfest, The Big Picture is running a series of horror-related features and reviews. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Danny Boyle’s 2002 horror classic 28 Days Later.

The zombie film was, to excuse the pun, a sub-genre that had flatlined at the turn of the century.

Movies thrown together by hacks with low budgets and even lower ambitions had consigned the undead to the DVD shelves. What this sub-section of horror needed was an injection of life and British genre-spanning director Danny Boyle was the man to administer it.

28 Days LaterBoyle’s raw and unsettling 28 Days Later acknowledges its debt to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy while striking out on its own with an all-too plausible apocalyptic nightmare that, as the director has argued, could happen next Wednesday.

Four weeks after anti-vivisectionists uncage an infected monkey from a research lab and unwittingly unleash the highly contagious ‘Rage’ virus, Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma in a deserted London hospital.

Confusion gives way to a queasy disbelief as he wanders the streets of a seemingly depopulated city that has evidently suffered some sort of cataclysm. A glance at a newspaper featuring the headline ‘Evacuation’ reinforces this, but Jim has no comprehension of the threat he faces.

28 Days LaterTo overcome the challenge of depicting an abandoned London, police closed roads at 4am to allow filming to take place, although only for an hour so as not to incur the Rage-like ire of drivers. The rewards can be seen on screen in what has rightly become one of modern horror’s most iconic scenes.

What gives the scene an even more resonant eeriness is its stillness. London has rarely looked more serene or threatening thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle’s urgent DV cinematography, while the escalating horror that Jim and the audience experience as he stumbles further into the city is amplified by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s apocalyptic post-rock.

28 Days LaterThere are clever touches, such as when Jim feverishly picks up a pile of banknotes, little realising just how worthless they now are. Likewise, a shot of Jim dwarfed by a giant advertising billboard showing smiling, healthy models is a blackly ironic antithesis of what’s to come.

While the nods to the Dead trilogy are clear, the threat of infected, rather than undead, owes more to Romero’s cult classic The Crazies (1973), in which the citizens of a small American town are sent into a homicidal rage after being contaminated with an infectious disease.

The film is also heavily indebted to John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, in particular when Jim awakens in the deserted hospital (a scene subsequently lifted by TV show The Walking Dead).

28 Days LaterJust as 28 Days Later has borrowed from past masters, so too have others stolen from Boyle’s horror classic, most notably the concept of the ‘fast zombie’ that has shown up in Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead (2004) remake, Zombieland (2009) and, more recently, the mega-budget World War Z (2013).

As the world entered a dark new chapter post 9/11, 28 Days Later’s horrific vision of a world turned upside down reflected our fears of just how precarious social order actually is.