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ex machina ex-Machina

Man, Machine – ★★★★★

Alex Garland is a man with pedigree. Aside from his literary work, the five feature films that he’s previously been involved with as screen-writer or executive producer – 28 Days Later, Sunshine, 28 Weeks Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd – all have avid fans (this reviewer included) and manage to conjure up the same mood and feeling – one of a dystopian, not-too distant time where technology and/or science are conspiring against man.

With this in mind, Garland’s first directorial effort EX_MACHINA arrives in cinemas this week under no small amount of pressure. It tells the story of Caleb, a young coder played by Domhnall Gleeson, who wins a contest to spend a week with his company’s reclusive genius CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who has set up shop on a Jurassic Park style island to work on a new form of artificial intelligence, a beautifully formed girl named Ava (Alicia Vikander, Testament of Youth, Anna Karenina) who appears to show all the sentience and conscience of human life. Caleb’s task is run the “Turing Test” on her and see if she can “exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human”.

ava ex machina ex_machina


Garland’s story is original enough to feel fresh and timely, yet when you stand back and think about how the plot develops, we’ve just got an incredibly simple tale of one-upmanship and people holding back their full hand of cards. It has plenty to say about gender and uses a lot of long, dialogue-heavy scenes to pull you in and build allegiances. Garland plays to a literate, smart audience with plenty of subtle nods to other texts and artists as diverse as Jackson Pollack and Willy Wonka.

Gleeson is superb and displays a very different kind of energy when opposite Isaac as mentor, and Vikander as test subject. Oscar Isaac (who is also in this week’s J.C. Chandor effort A Most Violent Year) borders on a drunk, autistic Bond villain at times and manages to call to mind a less approachable Sergey Brin – if he’d gone off the rails with Google X – or an even colder Steve Jobs – if he had decided the best place to develop new iPhones was in a volcano bunker in the Pacific Ocean.

All good science-fiction films are just a step or two removed from reality and Nathan’s fictional company Bluebook is just a mashup of everything we already know about Google and Apple with a few subtle hat-tips to the NSA/Snowden revelations. A few weeks ago the annual tech showcase CES was dominated by “the internet of things” as technology companies work to make everything in your home and life “smart” and “communicative”. As we place more and more trust in technology – allowing them to drive our cars, lock our doors and manage all our data – it stands to reason that society’s long-standing fear of making things “too smart” could one day return to haunt us. *reaches for tinfoil hat*

My co-conspirator wasn’t sold on the film’s closing scenes but I’d argue they were needed for true resolution. For my money I’d struggle to find fault with any of Garland or his team’s choices in a thrilling, thought-provoking bit of film-making. And it includes the most insane and hilarious musical number since the accordion came out in Holy Motors.

This film was viewed as part of an IFI premiere with Alex Garland and Domhnall Gleeson in attendance. The film is released in Ireland and the UK on January 23rd 2015

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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.