Offers as many genre pleasures as it does philosophical head-scratchers.
Ex Machina is as much a nerd’s cautionary tale as it is a nerd’s wet dream. It’s about two tech experts (nerds) who conduct an experiment on the world’s first true sentient AI, a mesmerizing, beautiful thing made up of plastic and metal and sinewy wires in the shape of an attractive young woman. Her name is Ava. She walks and talks and flirts and makes small talk just like us, only her skin is synthetic and we can see her insides. (See? Nerd’s wet dream. I kid. Sorta.) But how smart is she? Her human captors try to test her limits as a sentient being, but what they discover is something not even men as ingenious as them could have prepared for.
Sounds pretty intense, right? Well, it is, but that’s not to say novelist-turned screenwriter Alex Garland‘s directorial debut is a piece of tech-panic horror. Rather, it’s a crafty piece of thinking-man’s sci-fi, a ponderous, level-headed exploration of the implications we’d face as a species should we birth true AI. There are more than a few fascinating ideas and themes floating around in the film, enough to make it one of the most thoughtful and idiosyncratic films about robots, well, ever. Still, the movie’s first priority is entertainment, and on that front it doesn’t disappoint.
The story’s mastermind is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the muscly, intellectually imposing CEO of a Google-like search engine tech company. He’s Ava’s creator, and he’s found her a playmate in Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lanky, timid programmer who’s won a company-wide lottery that’s gifted him the extraordinary opportunity to spend a week at Nathan’s secluded, ridiculously expensive home, nestled into a mountainside at some undisclosed location not meant for common folk. Upon arrival, Nathan springs the surprise of a lifetime on Caleb, informing him that what he’s really there to do is interact with Ava, performing a kind of post-Turing Test in which he’s to determine whether she can pass as authentically sentient, despite Caleb knowing with complete certainty she’s man-made. If the Turing’s imitation game is blind, Nathan’s removed Caleb’s blindfold.
There’s another, reverse Turing Test of sorts going on as well, outside the confines of what we see on-screen. Ava’s played by a person, Swedish-born ballerina Alicia Vikander, but she, with the help of Garland and his visual effects team, must convince us, the audience, through various forms of movie magic, that what we’re seeing on-screen is not flesh and bone, but a humanoid mass of electronics. The illusion is key, as it’s the foundation the rest of the movie builds upon. Thankfully, it’s as impenetrable a visual trick as I’ve seen in years; I was in a constant state of amazement at how believable Vikander looks as a robot with a see-through midriff and limbs. I was stumped, and it was awesome.
While Ava is partly a grand feat in digital effects and conceptualization, what truly makes her convincing is Vikander, whose body vocabulary represents a sterilization and streamlining of the human body in motion, the aches and pains, tics and stutters sanded away. It’s a bizarre thing to watch Vikander glide around the room, her mechanical joints purring softly, as you find yourself forgetting she’s, in reality, draped in digital confections. For her controlled, inspired performance, Vikander deserves all the praise we can muster.
Let’s not forget the boys, though; they get work done, too. A large chunk of the film is driven by the layered, between-the-lines game of wits and intimidation played by Nathan and Caleb. Ostensibly, Nathan seems to just want to be Caleb’s “bro dude man” rather than his boss’ boss’ boss. But there’s a bit of predatory menace lurking underneath Nathan’s “tech-bro” image that’s represented in his burly physique and un-blinking glare. (When Caleb first meets him, he’s walloping the shit out of a punching bag. Coincidence? I think not.) As Caleb clocks in more and more sessions with Ava (who’s kept behind a wall of thick glass, but is irresistibly charming nonetheless), he begins to see Nathan and Ava not as an inventor and his invention, but as a monster and his imprisoned damsel. The point is, Caleb begins to feel for this machine, to the point where he wouldn’t be above doing her some favors. Is he a pawn in Ava’s scheme…or Nathan’s?
Nathan is the best cinematic intellectual oppressor since Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. Isaac is as good as he’s been in anything, and his physical transformation is arguably on-par with Vikander’s. Gleeson’s great too as the shy, slouched Caleb; while Isaac and Vikander’s characters are fully-formed and stay on a steady path throughout the story, Gleeson’s given what’s easily the film’s most dramatic character arc. He’s the audience’s proxy, primarily, but he lends a complexity and pathos to Caleb that pays off in spades by film’s end. Though Ex Machina is a cerebral movie for sure, Vikander, Isaac, and Gleeson’s performances anchor the film and make it feel wonderfully chaotic and raw as opposed to clinical and sober.
Garland’s got balls to tackle so many controversial topics at once, and that he pulls it off so smoothly proves he’s got skill on top of his nerve. There are tons of ideas swimming around in the film, some of which could fuel a movie on their own. Ava, for example, isn’t only the embodiment of AI and its ramifications regarding humanity, but a walking question of gender identity (she’s made of synthetic parts; and yet, she’s a she). Nathan and Caleb’s intellectual sparring matches are an examination of male ego, there’s more than a whiff of Blue Beard and Pygmalion in the narrative, and on top of that Garland brings up the freaky reality that our search engines know more about us than our loved ones do. Needless to say, I’m still chewing on this stuff weeks later.
What’s really cool about Ex Machina is that, despite its high-brow inner-workings, it’s still an easily accessible, small-scale thriller that offers as many genre pleasures as it does philosophical head-scratchers. It’s stylish, sleek and intellectually stimulating, but most importantly, it’s a lot of goddamn fun.