The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine may sound like an ideal summer holiday but there is a far more impressive link, Alex Garland. Some may be aware of Alex Garland’s work more than others but if you didn’t know he is a novelist, screenwriter and now taking on the role of director in his feature debut Ex Machina. Garland has managed to maintain his distinctive style with his writing that is also very adaptable to the big screen. He has even written screenplays for videogames and touched on genres from drama, science fiction, horror to even rebooting a graphic novel hero.
Back in 1996, Garland released his first book The Beach, which even to this day remains one of my favorite novels. It wasn’t long before the book was adapted into a film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo Di Caprio. The film wasn’t the biggest critical success, although i personally quite like the film, but it would have been a whole lot better and dark if it had followed Garland’s vision more closely. His book really is an accomplished debut that is fast passed and brilliantly conceived partly drawn from Garland’s own experiences as a backpacker.
Garland would also see his second novel The Tesseract published in 1998 also adapted into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but it was in 2002 when he wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later, that more people started to stand up and pay attention. The screenplay for 28 Days Later was for Danny Boyle to direct with Cillian Murphy as Jim who has only just awoken from a coma. When Jim comes finally comes around he discovers that he is alone and abandoned after a savage rage virus sweeps across Britain. The films strength is not only in its frightening realism, mounting tension but also in its ability to pay homage to previous apocalyptic horrors whilst also keeping it fresh and distinctively British. Garland was also asked to be the executive producer for the 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later.
In 2007, he also wrote the screenplay for the film Sunshine, which was to be his second screenplay to be directed by Danny Boyle and to once again star Cillian Murphy. The film was another success for Garland and for Boyle, which I regard as a modern Sci-Fi great. Sunshine sees a team of astronauts embark on a mission to reignite our own Sun that is nearing the end of its lifecycle and dying. The mission fails but now seven years later another team is sent to pick up where they left off. The film not only looks stunning but also is beautifully scored as it takes on ambitious and engrossing themes littered with complex characters and always grounded in its science fact. This being the third collaboration between Garland and Boyle shows that its not far off a match made in heaven although Garland was only just starting to spread his wings.
Opting to keep is next project back on solid terra firma rather than outer space, although still very much rooted in within the realms of science fiction, was Never Let Me Go. Released in 2010, this was another of Garland’s screenplay, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, was bought to the screen this time by director Mark Romanek featuring an impressive line up of young talent including Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Never Let Me Go is a beautifully bleak and heart-breaking story of young love, yet this dystopian tale is set against a back drop of medical breakthroughs and cloning. It’s a delicate and elegant film full of outstanding performances, which puts universal themes of morals, mortality, destiny and love front and centre.
Garland’s next project saw him entrusted to write the script for Dredd in 2012, which was to be an adaptation of the Judge Dredd comic book series from 2000 AD. This was a film where expectations were low, nobody was crying out for a reboot of this graphic novel law enforcer especially after the 1995 version featuring Sylvester Stallone. That said the result was a welcomed surprise. The result was an ultra stylized and ultra violent B Movie oozing style and impressive visual effects. By focusing a story that is localised to an everyday occurrence in Mega City One, Garland manages to construct a simple yet relentlessly entertaining story that focuses on Dredd as a man of the law and lets him flourish, in this case in the form of Karl Urban and his chin, whilst also remaining loyal to the dystopian violent future of the graphic novels. A theme was emerging – whatever he touched seemed to turn to gold.
Now equipped with a CV boasting best selling novels and successful screenplays, Alex Garland is ready to take on the director role himself with his feature film debut Ex Machina, which he also wrote.
Films such as The Terminator, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey and numerous other science fiction films have all featured stunningly realised androids and robots. They have all depicted artificial intelligence that is able to display a variety of human emotions and intellect with varying consequences and have done so impressively. Filmmakers have long been fascinated about the concept of artificial intelligence and all of the fear and wonderment that comes along with it, but it’s rare that they probe such questions such as what is it to be human? And can a machine be truly conscious? Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is such a film that is able to both probe these questions and execute its concept beautifully, making it a stunning piece Science Fiction.
Ex Machina is a Sci-Fi thriller that follows the story of a 24 year old computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins the chance to spend a week at a house in the remote mountains that belongs to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of the company he works for, to assist on a highly confidential project. However, when Caleb gets there he finds that he has to participate in a fascinating experiment involving a new brand of artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Under Nathan’s direction, Caleb is asked to assist with a Turing Test on Ava intended to prove whether a machine can think for itself and achieve conscious intelligence. However, consciousness cannot exist without intention and Ava has a different agenda to that of her creator. Now manipulated from both sides, suspicion and tension builds leaving Caleb confused and lost as his judgment becomes clouded and he begins to doubt himself as to who is really being tested. There is nothing more human than the will to survive.
This film looks set to propel Garland from an established author and screenwriter to a film director that possesses huge potential and promise. Full of complex concepts and themes, Ex Machina is a highly intelligent piece of science fiction that is grounded by scientific fact all set in a not too distant future well within the boundaries of believability. The result is a product that is clean, slick, finely paced, often playful but always thought provoking.
It’s the cast that do all the heavy lifting here as Garland’s skill as a writer shines through with his sharp and intelligent dialogue.
Domhnall Gleeson is spot on casting for Caleb as he has an appearance of someone who is intelligent yet still fresh faced and innocent enough to make him ideal for this role. He is the perfect gullible admirer of Ava and susceptible to the charm of Nathan who is constantly patronising and suffers from a God Complex as Ava’s creator. Oscar Isaac plays the alcoholic genesis and recluse Nathan very well. He always seems to have something up his sleeve and despite often playing the drinking fool he seems always one step ahead of the game. His character is more relatable to Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg in terms of his technically skill and power of his company despite having a more sinister edge to him. He lives on his own with a maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who doubles as Nathan’s assistant and pleasure toy that doesn’t speak English. It’s Isaac that supplies the film with its more playful elements including a fantastic dance scene with his maid that is synced to perfection.
Capping off the tight cast of four is the standout performance of Alicia Vikander as Ava. Ava is beautifully crafted and conceived, helped immensely by Vikander’s almost unworldly like movements that really give Ava that robotic feel to her movements, this has no doubt been helped by her ballet experience. It was vital that the visual effects and production worked simultaneously in order for Ava to appear visually as a robot but still retain her feminine features to give her that graceful and undeniably seductive appearance. Alicia Vikander is successfully able to portray a wide range of emotions from fear, anger, lust and even humor whilst never breaking her character’s mechanical mould. It’s a powerful, subtle and believable performance as we are not quite sure if Ava’s sexuality is a weapon or is she simply just a puppet “Does Ava actually like you or is she pretending to like you?”
The setting used for the film is suitably beautiful mainly thanks to the Director of Photography Rob Hardy. The vast open Norwegian landscape that is doubling for Alaska is perfectly juxtaposed against the small and enclosed almost claustrophobic lab. Both elegant in their own way but one natural and the other man made. This theme continues with Geoff Barrow’s and Ben Sailsbury’s subtle yet engrossing score that is both fluid and electric to match the machine and human elements of the film.
Ex Machina is elegant, intelligent and skillfully constructed. This isn’t a story of Man vs Machine but can Machine be Man. Rich in its themes and its concepts that are brilliantly realized, grounded by science and within the realms of believability. Its able to explore concepts of what it is to be human and what is it that a machine would consciously want. The scaled back cast and minimalist sets allow the visuals, dialogue and acting to be the driving force the film.
Alex Garland gives us an original piece of British Science fiction that is able to entertain and stimulate debate as he gives us a glimpse into the near future of artificial intelligence. A shape, smart and impressive directorial debut from Garland who has managed to put the great in Great British Science Fiction.