“This might be one of the best films we’ve ever played at South by Southwest.” High praise indeed coming from the SXSW festival’s senior programmer, Jarod Neece, ahead of the Saturday night North American premiere of “Ex Machina.”
But the directing debut of longtime screenwriter Alex Garland more than lived up to it as a sci-fi chamber drama that manages to be tactile, cerebral and gripping, crammed with big ideas while also feeling like an engagingly twisting thriller. It is smart cinema, smartly done.
Or as actor Oscar Isaac put in in the post-screening Q&A, “It’s pretty cool when the action set pieces of a movie are two people torturing themselves with their brains.”
As the film opens, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at a large tech company, is summoned to the remote estate of the company’s enigmatic CEO, Nathan (Isaac). There Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot designed and built by Nathan. Caleb is meant to give Ava an extended series of tests to see if her artificial intelligence can pass for human consciousness. This places the three of them in a battle of wits and wills.
The film played very well to the room Saturday night, with frequent bursts of laughter and even a round of applause following a dance break by Isaac. After the screening, Garland, Isaac and Gleeson came out to huge applause from the audience. Perhaps because of the concurrent interactive conference occurring at SXSW and the general emphasis on technology at the festival, the film seemed to hit home with this audience in particular, which wanted to engage with the larger philosophical questions posed by the film and the minutia of how it was accomplished.
“I’d say I’m on the robot’s side in this movie,” said Garland, whose previous screenplays, including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd,” have made him something of a go-to figure for dystopian speculative fiction.
“My suspicions are with the humans, really,” he added later. “I’m very sort of suspicious and worried about people. I don’t feel that way about robots. I think they might be more reasonable than we are.”
Garland repeatedly downplayed any grand vision on his part in his first time out as director. Rather he spotlighted the work of collaborators who include cinematographer Rob Hardy, concept artist Jock and composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. “This is a bunch of filmmakers," he said. "I promise you that’s how I see it.” (Barrow, a member of the group Portishead, and Salisbury also were DJs at the film’s after-party, and their set was composed of film scores and songs from movies.)
As for the seamless visual effects work involved in turning Vikander into a lithe robot with many exposed parts, Garland credited the effects team led by Andrew Whitehurst. He said they “connected to this film on a sort of emotional level quite early on, and they just said, we’re going to make this work. Shoot it how you want it." Rob Hardy, the director of photography, "obviously shot it incredibly beautifully, and the VFX guys never got in the way, never slowed anything up," Garland said.
The film opens in the U.S. next month. Though some may find unsettling the direction it points for the future of people, technology and artificial intelligence, Garland does not (and he included a slight dig at the recent “Interstellar” in saying so).
“The reason I like the idea of A.I.’s is they’re an extension of us,” Garland said. “There’s a long future attached to them, longer than ours. We have a very finite future. We’re going to die on this rock. There’s not going to be a wormhole off the side of Saturn. It’s not going to be there. It sucks, but it’s true.”
Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus
We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.