(Alex Garland, 2015)
It's not a criticism of Ex Machina to say it resembles an extremely good episode of The Outer Limits stretched to feature length. In fact, it may be a compliment.
This provocative piece of science fiction, filled with ideas and founded around three strong characters makes for an intense, unsettling experience.
Domhnail Gleeson is Caleb, a coder at a hugely successful search engine company who wins a workplace lottery to spend a week at the isolated, beautiful estate of the reclusive founder-owner-genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac). There he discovers that Nathan has created a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to perform a turing test on it through conversation.
Writer-director and former novelist Garland has structured his debut like a novel; it is split, with onscreen titles pages, into days and once during each day Caleb has a conversation with Ava. Afterwards he hangs out with the Bro-like Nathan (who gets drunk late at night, and alternates detox and boxing a punchbag in the mornings), becoming increasingly disturbed and suspicious about his methodology and motivations. This may have something to do with the fact that he might in fact be falling in love with Ava, who is worryingly beautiful, and even seems to be flirting with him.
Gleeson and Isaac are brilliantly cast here, with the former's jumpy anxiety a fine contrast to the cocky intensity of the latter. Isaac gets the best speeches and the most interesting depths, and much of this film plays like a theatrical two-hander - intense exchanges and arguments between intelligent individuals about abstract ideas. Their dynamic is perfect; Isaac penetrating, patronising and deliberately cool. Gleeson struggling to retain any composure.
Vikander's Ava then, comes out of left field. First seen in silhouette, she makes a lovely electronic whirring noise as she moves. But she seems more and more human with each scene, though Vikander never loses the odd, alien quality she gives the character - there in the way she holds herself, the way she turns her head. She seems to fall for Caleb just as much as he has fallen for her, but the film is full of dire warnings of the consequences for her creation: early on, Caleb equates Nathan with a God (Nathan's deliberate (?) misremembering of this moment is a quiet comic highlight) , and later, Nathan speculates that one day A.Is will view humans as we regard fossils on the plains of Africa - dumb apes and their clumsy tools. All of this and the growing tension between the three characters (together with Nathan's silent maid, Kyoko) makes for a growing sense of unease. Garland's cinematographer, Rob Hardy, is a vital contributor here - he shoots Nathan's house-cum-research facility with long, muted tracking shots down corridors, plenty of oblique angles on Ava, observed and aware, in her room, the nearby vastness of the green mountainsides and waterfalls emphasising the isolation of these characters as their drama plays out.
And it is a drama which has a great ending that makes perfect sense and seems inevitable, in retrospect. As if nothing else could have happened, it could have gone no other way. That's what's in the eyes of the three principals in the climactic moments: This is how it always had to be.
Garland should have a hell of a career ahead of him.