Directed and Written by Alex Garland
Alicia Vikander as Ava
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb
Oscar Issac as Nathan
Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko
Alex Garland! A scriptwriter’s fantasy come true. My MA thesis was on “Hollywood & The Novel”. and oh, how all those novelists brought to Hollywood to write scripts dreamed of directing. They never made it. Writers know their position on the totem pole and it’s certainly not at the top. Alex Garland is wish-fulfilment. I guess first you have to write a story that people desperately want to fund.
Then you cast it, and is this cast hot or not? The same multiplex has Alicia Vikander next door on one side in Testament of Youth (LINKED), and Oscar Isaac the other side in A Most Violent Year (I exaggerate slightly, but they were on in the same 16 screen).
It’s good tight science-fiction. Just the cast of four locked up together, though this time not in a spaceship with funny noises in the hold, but in a billionaire’s home / research lab on the edge of a Norwegian glacier … location is not named, but it was filmed in Norway and the helicopter has a Norwegian registration. Nathan is the bullish bodybuilding founder of Blue Book, a search engine with 94% of the world traffic. So not at all like Google. This genius (who invented Blue Book aged thirteen) is investing his fortune in creating AI – Artificial Intelligence. He’s so rich we learn the helicopter has been flying over “his estate” for two hours. Long range for a small copter as it leaves to return without re-fueling. Caleb is the innocent young programmer, who thinks he’s won a lottery prize of a week’s bonding time with the boss. Not.
The AI consists of shapely female robots (to use a crude old fashioned word … Metal Mickey these girls are not.) I think I’ll avoid most plot spoilers but just to say the casting is perfect. Oscar Isaac is almost impossibly black-bearded and frightening. Caleb is SO innocent. Of course, the unmatchable Alicia Vikander steals the show as Ava, the centre of the story. Much of the time she only has a face to act with, and the subtlety is wonderful to behold. The rest of her was probably in green overalls for later SFX additions. There’s a lot of thought-provoking conversation, as Nathan aims to find the line between humans and AI, which is why Caleb has been selected, to test how “human” Ava actually is. Lots of confusion, and the threat remains veiled to the end. It reminded me oddly of John Fowles The Magus. I can’t put my finger on why.
Nathan shows Caleb a spare brain.
A couple of quibbles. First, inevitably in the circumstances, poor Caleb begins to wonder about his own humanity, and decides to test himself with a sharp object. This is an ancient AI / robot story device, and I say that having used it twice myself in stories. I first met the plot hinge in a budget two inch thick compendium of sci-fi stories in Woolworths circa 1958. Mind you, nowadays they can do it so well technically, and the setting is so good.
From Streamline English Directions by Peter Viney, 1982
Second. Deus ex-machina. A god from a machine. It dates back to Greek theatre where, when the appearance of a god was needed to resolve a plot, they were lifted over the back of the stage on a primitive crane. The meaning has evolved to mean any unlikely or surprising event that resolves a story. Garland has taken it back to its roots. The human / AI / god discussion bounces around. The helicopter at the end is literally a machine for a god … Going on from that, the manipulative Nathan has made Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement about the project (NDA). Jokingly, or seriously (I don’t know) he says he had the guys who built the lab killed. I believed him, and thought Caleb was over-trusting to believe he was ever going to get out. No plot spoilers as to the end, but the promised pick-up helicopter DOES arrive, meaning Nathan was not quite so evil in intent as I had thought. One review said the end was predictable. I’d predicted it myself, but still found it eminently satisfying as plot.
Alicia Vikander is Ava
I thought the filming, the plot, the dialogue, the acting brilliant as did the other male in our party of four. In contrast, both women disliked the film quite strongly, while admitting its technical and acting virtues. They disliked the bluebeard aspect of Nathan’s various trial robots, all shapely females, with as he tells us early on, working genitalia. Maybe it’s Oscar Isaac’s intense black beard that made the Bluebeard comparison. They thought it had a salacious / light porn aspect. At one point, Caleb asks if Ava’s face was designed to his personal “porn profile” (Blue Book can hack into any person’s net interchanges). So a very strong gender divide in our appreciation.
Alicia Vikander’s performance, as in Testament of Youth, is of the highest order. Garland’s direction, like his script, is taut, cool, and stylish. I’d say four stars.