We may still be a few months away from the barrage of end-of-year critics awards, but there's already one film I suspect will stake a claim for numerous Best First Film prizes. "Ex Machina", the directorial debut of Alex Garland, is sure to be one of the most acclaimed genre outings of 2015. This uncommonly disciplined sci-film is sure to have you rapt in its exploration of intelligence and emotion, of both the human and artificial kind.
The film follows a fateful week in the life of a man named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at Bluebook, a company not dissimilar to Google. His week begins with an exciting invitation to meet the company's CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who works at home from a grand, secluded estate. Caleb soon learns that he has been brought in to perform the Turing test, to determine whether Nathan's A.I. creation - an humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) - displays proof of true consciousness. Thus begins a series of interactions between Caleb and Ava, forming a relationship that gradually uncovers some of the mysteries of this secret facility.
And so the stage is set for one of the most expertly crafted films of the year. Indeed, if you weren't aware that this was a debut feature, you wouldn't guess from Garland's confident direction. Where others would try to sensationalize the thriller elements, he shows remarkable restraint, doubling down on the film's chilly atmospherics. The score is sparse but impactful, while the art direction and cool lighting evoke a feeling of disquiet. You can practically hear a pin drop in its mesmerizingly sterile surroundings.
"Ex Machina" is far from lifeless however, thanks to the work of Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander in the primary roles. As the POV character, Gleeson is a great audience surrogate, his inquisitive eyes always searching for answers. Meanwhile as the mad scientist archetype, Oscar Isaac is truly outstanding. His casual, wry sense of humour compels you to keep your guard down, despite the script telling you otherwise. Likewise, Vikander's Ava is hardly a Frankenstein's monster, delivering an utterly convincing performance that instills empathy and gives you a character to root for. Her perfectly calibrated mix of mechanical physicality and soulful expressions display the perfect convergence of the technological and psychological concepts at the heart of the story.
Ava's desires for freedom and happiness are brilliantly elaborated in the screenplay, conveyed with all the subtlety of Garland's directing style. And though its myriad questions are deeply philosophical, the understated tone removes all airs of pretense. As such, it draws us in and begs us to come to our own conclusions about the moral implications of the entire experiment.
Ultimately, "Ex Machina" is a fascinating thesis on the limits of control, whether it relates to man over machine, our feelings or other people. For Garland however, his manipulation of our hearts and minds is a gratifying showcase of boundless talent. "Ex Machina" is a near-perfect specimen of sci-fi filmmaking, fitting all the criteria with its element of surprise, engaging scientific thought and palpable social dilemma.
It's easy to see why "Ex Machina" stood out in the first half of 2015, earning deserved Oscar buzz for all its impeccable craft and performances. At this point however, its chances seem minimal at best. If voters are in a sci-fi friendly mood, maybe it can land nods for Best Original Screenplay and a shock Best Picture nomination. I suspect the critics would have to champion it for this to happen though (and not just with "first film" prizes).