Caleb is a computer programmer working for Bluebook, the apparent Google of the Not-Too-Distant-Future. He wins a company contest to meet with Nathan, the company’s Howard Hughes-esque genius founder, on a top-secret project at his secluded home. When he arrives, he discovers that he has been selected to help Nathan test a new form of artificial intelligence in the form of an advanced robot named Ava. As the story goes on, Caleb begins to have feelings for Ava, who may or may not have feelings of her own for Caleb and against Nathan.
Domhall Gleeson is the everyman-esque main character, Caleb, and as such, he gives the film its humanity; the quiet, reserved guy who is intrigued by what he sees, but gradually starts to question and challenge what the circumstances present themselves. He provides the thoughtful eagerness that properly feeds against Oscar Isaac’s douche-extraordinaire Nathan. Isaac plays Nathan as the guy you knew in college who was approachable, who knows from the get-go that he was smarter and more talented than you, but still tried to be a friendly rival all the same. He nearly steals the show while helping provide a Luke-and-Han dynamic between the two, which may come into play when they co-star together in Star Wars: The Force Awakens this Christmas. The standout is Alicia Vikander, who gives Ava the type of effective but reserved wonderment toward humanity, and Caleb in particular, that Brent Spiner gave to Star Trek: TNG’s Data, but hers is with a greater sense of either genuine fear or cunning manipulation. Sonoya Mizuno plays Kyoko, Nathan’s assistant, as a practically mute slave, unable to speak of the horrors she’s seen in Nathan’s hidden fortress, though she finds the strength to stand tall when the final act comes into play.
Garland, who also wrote the original 28 Days Later and the criminally-underrated Dredd, populates his directorial debut with scenes comprised mostly of long, takes between one or two of the characters with cutting only when seemingly necessary. These scenes are in environments consisting of either bright, Kubrickian hallways and sitting rooms or in the serene, almost magical forests that surround Nathan’s tiny structure outside. Nearly every shot in the film, courtesy of cinematographer Rob Hardy, is a wide-angle photograph unto itself.
In addition to the finely-tuned acting, I really appreciated Garland’s approach to 2001 and Solaris visuals. He opts for bright-but-claustrophobic rooms and hallways shot with long, wide-angle takes to give Nathan’s small forest dwelling with a big, techy basement a sense of dangerous intrigue. It effectively and beautifully plays on the nature-versus-nurture state of Ava and Caleb’s budding relationship as well as the conflict that arises between the trio. Ava’s design itself is equally sparse but effective, with just her arms, torso and the back of her head showing any visual signs of inhumanity. She even manages to hide those with some girly outfits and wigs to make herself look and potentially feel real.
If there is anything to complain about the film, it’s that there a only a precious few surprises. Nathan’s story is a variation of Frankenstein’s Mad Scientist/Playing God motivation, and as said before, Caleb is pretty much a smarter, more cynical version of Luke Skywalker. But when your biggest complaints are retreads on well-established formulas, at least ones that have been done over and over again for decades, you can easily forgive the filmmakers for going the unbroken routes that they did.
Yes, there is precious few fresh ideas about this tried-and-true cautionary tale, but film still thrives on the wide-open sparseness of the environments and cinematography as well as the completely believable performances of the three main actors. In the modern era of Sci-Fi, littered with the flashy fun of superheroes and giant robots (which I also love), it’s nice to see the kind of smart, bleak and thought-provoking tales of the future that only seem to come along every few years. And Garland has taken this simple idea and created a fantastic, little film that’s the best of its kind since Moon and District 9 that may not be a fully recognized now, but in hindsight will only become a benchmark for Sci-Fi films of this decade. Maybe the future won’t be so bad after all.
Written by: Christopher Dees