Ex Machina

And Other Cerebral Sci-Fi Films.

By Tom Bielby.

Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA

With the release of Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, an intelligent science fiction tale that examines our fascination with Artificial Intelligence, we decided to highlight a number of other science fiction films that tackle big concepts in a small-scale environment. We all enjoy the huge scale of science-fiction films set in space, and we actually wrote about a number of these to commemorate the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey last year (which you can read about here) but now it’s time to shift our focus to those smaller gems which represent another fascinating branch of the genre.

Best known for his collaborations with Danny Boyle, Alex Garland is the writer behind 28 Days LaterSunshine and The Beach, as well as features such as Dredd and Never Let Me Go. With this wealth of experience behind him we can rest assured that Ex Machina is in very safe hands and it could well be the start of a fascinating career change for Garland.

In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer who is whisked away to a remote location to take part in an experiment that will test the latest breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. Here Caleb meets Ava, a robot played by Alicia Vikander, who is currently gracing the big screen in the WW1 biopic Testament of Youth, and as the experiment progresses under the watchful eye of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), he soon begins to realise the potentially disastrous implications of this new technology.

The advent of new technology is also a theme that is explored in Shane Carruth’s Primer, and when a group of four engineers create a working time machine, they too face a dilemma of catastrophic proportions when they realise the impact their invention could have on the world. Low budget science-fiction often tends to be the most creative, as a captivating and intelligent screenplay is far more essential for the success of such a film, and Primer boasts a number of complex ideas that reward repeat viewings.

A scene from Shane Carruth's PRIMER

Time-travel forms the basis of another cerebral science-fiction film that revels in the darker side of the genre, and Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes is far easier to follow than the multiple timelines which permeate Primer’s screenplay but is just as impressive in its depiction of the fallout from the invention of such a machine. When a man stumbles upon a time machine and inadvertently travels back in time an hour he is drawn into a difficult game of cat and mouse with another version of his own self, and this idea provides a fascinating foundation for a twisty science-fiction thriller.

Technology is not always to blame for the element of danger in such films, with last year’s thrilling mind-bender Coherence suggesting that a meteor might be the cause for a number of parallel worlds to intersect, much to the horror of guests at a dinner-party who are caught up in the eerie events that follow. As the guests being to realise their predicament, they struggle to offer up a satisfying explanation for the occurrence, which gives rise to some fascinating conversations before the situation begins to spiral out of control. Science-fiction fans will delight in the ingeniously clever concept behind Coherence, which is based upon a modern theory in quantum mechanics, and the use of a single location to heighten the isolation of those caught up in the phenomenon only adds to the tension.


Coherence is not the only science-fiction film to rely heavily upon dialogue as an alternative to special-effects, with 2007’s The Man From Earth also taking place entirely at a dinner party, with the guests interrogating a mysterious scholar who claims to have been alive for over 14,000 years. Playing out like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, this is an engaging drama that turns an enthralling idea into a plausible concept, thanks in part to the captivating performances of the cast and a bold exploration of religious history. The Man From Earth may be the furthest the genre could be from a film set in outer space but the concept at the core of the story is pure science-fiction, and shows how a simple idea can be just as breathtaking as an epic voyage through the solar system.

Whilst the films we have mentioned so far take a serious approach to science-fiction, the genre does occasionally lend itself to comedy, with LFO: The Movie exploring the hilarious consequences for Robert (Patrik Karlson) when he discovers he can hypnotise people with certain sound waves. Experimenting on his neighbours and anyone unfortunate enough to knock on his door, Robert abuses the power of his invention in one of the most original and fascinating science-fiction films to come out of Sweden.

When David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, turned his hand to film-making, everyone anticipated great things, and the grandiose concept behind his directorial debut Moon lived up to expectations, delivering one of the finest science fiction films of recent years. Set in an isolated moon base inhabited by a lone astronaut, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), and his robot companion GERTY, (voiced by Kevin Spacey), who are tasked with overseeing a project to harvest minerals from the moon’s surface, Moon tells the story of a life-changing encounter for Sam that has grave implications for his future.

Sam Rockwell in MOON (dir. Duncan Jones)

All of these films tackle fascinating cerebral concepts that take place in a small-scale environment and showcase some of the finest science-fiction stories of recent years. With its intelligent storyline and superb performances from Gleeson and Vikander, Ex Machina is likely to join their ranks as a fine example of science-fiction film-making, and we can only hope that Alex Garland’s affinity for the genre will continues with his next projects. Ex Machina is out in cinemas now, and we implore you to take the chance to see it on the big screen, you won’t regret it…

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