Starlet Alicia Vikander has her breakout role in the critically-adored/fanboy-hyped artificial intelligence thriller “Ex Machina.”
Playing a robot whose creator suspects she might pass for sentient Vikander shows a “placid inscrutability that can pass for either naivete or artful manipulation” Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr raves, and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post notes her “sensitivity and precise, balletic movements.”
At the moment, though, she’s juggling a cell phone and forgetting her native Swedish for a little Olde English profanity as she deals with luggage on arriving in Barcelona.
At 26, she’s been around long enough to earn some attention — in supporting roles in “Anna Karenina” with Keira Knightley and the Danish import “A Royal Affair” with Mads Mikkelsen.
But this year, no fewer than seven titles with her in them are showing up — from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to the Oscar bait biography of the first public sex-change operation survivor.
It is “Ex Machina” that may stand out down the road, though, thanks to a script from the “28 Days Later” screenwriter “with no stage directions, no real hints of how to play this robot.”
Writer-director Alex Garland “let me create her, on my own, from scratch.” Special effects erased her skin and substituted metal parts for her internal organs, and added the sound of servos whirring with every movement. And Garland gave Vikander one great stage direction.
“‘Go for as much ‘GIRL’ as you can,'” Vikander remembers him saying. “I kept that in my head, a machine being as much a girl as possible, and Alex let me try things out from day one, and over rehearsals that’s what I did. Play a girl, but find these little glitches in the program that give her away — a bit of speech here, an awkward, mechanical movement there.”
They decided not to totally erase the multi-lingual Vikander’s accent, “because that makes Ava a little exotic. Alex GOES for that!” She laughs.
And she and co-star Domhnall Gleeson, playing the computer nerd brought in to administer the “Turing Test,” questions that help determine whether a machine is thinking for itself, “kept little photographs of the effect that would render Alicia/Ava into a machine, “just to refer to, between takes. It reminded us both of who we were dealing with.”
Audiences need that reminder as well, as Vikander, in a mesh “Spiderman suit” that is partly erased by technology, makes us question what makes up our humanity.
“I don’t think any of us involved ever ‘set’ or said out loud just what we thought about that. But it was a question I had to ask with every single line my character said. ‘Am I AWARE of what I’m saying? Am I trying to GET something out of this? Or is this just a program, something I have had inputted into me?'”
Vikander, as many film critics have noted, is poker-faced as Ava, from first scene to last. And that might be the key to why “Ex Machina,” which opened wider April 24, works. With a little removal from the process — Barcelona is a good place for that — Vikander recalled what frightened her about the artificial intelligence dilemma that the script suggested, on first reading.
“You never know who to believe or who to trust, just as with most thrillers. But Ava is also sort of asking that question of trust herself, as well. We had to keep the expressing of emotions minimal,” she says. And, poker-faced as ever, she adds “We had to keep SOME of her secrets hidden, didn’t we?”
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