The world will not end with a bang, but with a whimper, wrote T. S. Eliot. And novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland goes full circle from a possible end to the very beginning, by upending the tale of Adam and Eve with Ex Machina. This riff on artificial intelligence marks his directorial debut after a stellar run of dystopian, thoughtful genre-based scripts, and sets up a classic romantic triangle of a woman and two men in a remote, isolated location inaccessible except at preordained moments by helicopter.
Then Mr. Garland twists it beyond mere science-fiction genre filmmaking into something else: a coolly entomological, smartly unnerving soulmate of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, asking who exactly is the human in this battle of wits between man and machine. Ava (a winning Alicia Vikander) is not an alien airdropped on Earth like Scarlett Johansson in Mr. Glazer's film. She is an artificial creation - a female-shaped android whose self-actualizing algorithm of behaviour and understanding feeds on the tentacles of the ubiquitous search engine built by the visionary Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Unlike Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, a fast-growing mash-up of puppy, tweener and Terminator, Ava has come into the world fully formed, is not the first of her kind and certainly not the last. Her logical mind is learning how to deal with humans not only from the manipulative, almost amoral Nathan but also from Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the programmer out of his depth whose selection to spend a week with the boss in his remote secret laboratory is not as random as it seems.
While some of Mr. Garland's previous scripts have mostly been handed out to hyperactive stylists (though, to be fair, Sunshine remains my personal favourite of Danny Boyle's films), Ex Machina sees him go the exact other way as he steps behind the camera. Measured and cerebral, it's a sleek, utterly controlled chamber piece, almost Aristotelian in its strict adherence to unities of time, space and action (seven days, three characters, one set). Mood and acting go side by side to create the film's singular mood, proceeding inexorably like an anxiety-inducing zero-sum gane of chess where each move has been thought out in advance - and this man-made Eve may not, in fact, require either of her two Adams to go out into the world, much like a machine-tooled femme fatale.
Neither gods or monsters, only humans are at the heart of Ex Machina, and humanity's attraction towards Pandora's boxes of unknown content. But Mr. Garland's film is no cautionary tale, merely a precise thought experiment that asks questions without necessary laying out an answer.
USA, United Kingdom, 2014
Cast Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Oscar Isaac
Director and screenwriter Alex Garland; cinematographer Rob Hardy (colour, widescreen); composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow; designer Mark Digby; costumes Sammy Sheldon Differ; editor Mark Day; effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst; producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich; production companies Universal Pictures International and DNA Films in association with Filmfour
Screened April 14th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon