Premiere report: Ex Machina arrives at the IFI

Monday 19th January saw the Irish premiere of Ex Machina at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin. In attendance at the sold out screening were writer/director Alex Garland and the film’s lead, Domhnall Gleeson, fresh off the boards of the Olympia theatre stage where Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce is currently playing nightly to rapturous responses. The duo also participated in a post-screening Q&A.

Debuting to much praise from critics, Ex Machina sees Gleeson’s coder Caleb invited to spend a week in the home of reclusive billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), founder of the world’s leading search engine, Bluebook. After signing the mother of all non-disclosure agreements, Caleb finds himself the human participant in a version of the Turing test, interacting daily with Nathan’s eerily beautiful A.I. creation Ava (Alicia Vikander), to deduce whether or not she has achieved consciousness. Garland’s film gradually reveals itself to be a beguiling examination of human nature, a perfectly played three-hander fraught with tension, leading to a conclusion which will surely provoke much debate from audiences and critics alike.

Ex Machina sees novelist and screenwriter Garland make his first foray into the director’s chair, calling the shots on the claustrophobic, clinically-paced drama at the heart of the film. In spite of this, Garland has keenly downplayed the notion of director as auteur. Speaking to Scannain, the director drew attention to the collaborative nature of filmmaking: ‘What I keep saying, and I say it because it’s true, is the directing thing is really overstated. Film is a collaborative thing, it’s a bunch of people and the director really is just one of them. The DoP, the production designer, the editor, the composers, the sound designers, all the people we never talk about, we only ever talk about fucking directors… they are all filmmakers. It’s true of the previous films I’ve worked on, it’s true on this one too. (The director) is just one of the team. And that’s not modesty’.

While Garland is currently in the process of adapting Jeff Van der Meer’s 2014 novel Annihilation, he adds that he has no idea what his next project could be: ‘It’s hard to tell if [Annihilation]
]will get off the ground, but that’s what I’m trying to do’. Whatever Garland finds himself doing next, the fandom on display at the IFI was sign enough that Ex Machina marks just another chapter in a much celebrated filmography. Despite an initially chilly response, his 2007 Danny Boyle collaboration Sunshine has since achieved cult status. Going by the number of DVDs signed last night, it’s this film that fans are most eager to celebrate.

Ex Machina also represents Garland’s third collaboration with Gleeson, following 2010’s Never Let Me Go and another cult classic, Dredd, released in 2012. Humble as ever, Gleeson finds this harder to believe than most, calling Garland ‘one of my heroes’. Despite being Ex Machina‘s protagonist and the film’s moral centre, Gleeson’s Caleb is very much a reactive character for the bulk of the film, his shy awestruck exterior gradually giving way to reveal a conflicted man within. Gleeson found the role especially challenging: ‘It was frustrating you know? Alex was very good at managing me in that, not letting me get too down about feeling that I didn’t get to do anything. But I think that it worked out well in the film so I’m happy about how it turned out’.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Alex Garland's EX MACHINA
Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA

By contrast, Isaac’s socio-bro Nathan often forcefully pushes the story, and indeed Caleb along, his blend of affability and intensity never quite sitting well with the young coder. Gleeson and Isaac’s scenes together are consistently undercut with a delicate sense of tension that never quite bubbles over, which Gleeson reveals came quite naturally to the pair: ‘Oscar can turn on the alpha-male thing pretty quickly. The lines only let you be a beta in those scenes, so once he turned it on, it was pretty easy just to have to deal with it.’ Gleeson also praised Garland’s direction, often leading him to go against his natural instincts for the benefit of the film as a whole, not least in some of the film’s most disturbing moments: ‘The instinct is to be all “tears and argh!” but that’s not always what the role requires’.

For Gleeson, the premiere marked a rare night off from the Sean Foley-directed production of The Walworth Farce. The show’s four week run is entirely sold out, and sees Domhnall share the stage with father Brendan and brother Brian as they enact the madcap, incomprehensible and always riotous dysfunctionalities of an Irish father and his two sons confined to a grotty London flat. ‘It’s been great’, says Gleeson, ‘It’s an expensive night out and we know that, so we just try to give the audience everything we’ve got’. For Domhnall in particular, this extends to a whole load of on-stage nudity, particularly in the play’s opening. ‘Yes, unfortunately you get to see far more of me than anyone should have to see but I mean, it’s not my fault!’

Ex Machina previews on 21-22nd January and goes on general release from Friday 23rd January. Read Scannain‘s verdict here.