What do you do when you have everything? That’s one of the many questions posed by Alex Garland’s chrome-slick, ultra-contemporary thriller set in era where technology can make geniuses into gods.
Oscar Isaac charms and unnerves as reclusive prodigy Nathan, the brains behind a wildly successful Google-esque search engine. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is the good-natured programmer who wins a contest to stay with his employer in his isolated mansion and take part in a ‘Turing test’ – a thought experiment to assess the humanity of A.I. Ava (Alicia Vikander). The twist – Nathan’s A.I. has a human face but a robot body.
Caleb can see that Ava is a robot but can she still convince him that she has independent human consciousness? So begins an itchily taut three-hander set in the windowless rooms and corridors of Nathan’s custom-built palace, a modern billionaire’s playground replete with mod-cons, where motivations and manipulations are constantly shifting.
The title is just right. From the Latin ‘from the machine’ it evokes the phrase ‘deus ex machina’ or ‘god from the machine’ (meaning the moment in a script where a plot niggle is resolved by the introduction of an unexpected element or character). And Garland’s story is both ancient and new. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman? And what happens to a man who is left alone and given everything he could ever desire except, perhaps, love and human companionship?
It plays like Frankenstein meets Blade Runner via Hitchcock haunted by the ghosts of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, in a film that’s both highly literate and steeped in tense cat-and-mouse chills. Thematically epic – it demands to be seen at least twice and should fuel hours of debate — structurally it’s as lithe as Ava’s perfect mesh frame.
Three players. Two locations. Sparse dialogue. Crisp, clean cinematography from Rob Hardy who also lensed more classical fare such as 2013’s The Invisible Woman and this month’s Testament Of Youth (also starring Vikander), with production design that speaks as loudly as Garland’s carefully chosen words. Making his debut as director, Garland looks set to become a cinematic prodigy himself.
“Is it strange to have made something that hates you?” Ava purrs – her velvet venom as much an indication of her humanity as anything Nathan’s rigged test can reveal. This is a gorgeous monster, which, like Ava, demands to be seen.