Ex Machina is a little movie with some big ideas. It’s a movie that makes you think. Writer/director Alex Garland – who wrote the screenplay for the fatally flawed, but otherwise brilliantly conceived sci-fi film Sunshine – constructs a story so packed with ideas, I was thinking about them long after I left the theater.
We’re all familiar with the wobbly first twenty minutes of most movies. The director uses those minutes to introduce us to the characters, and gives us exposition necessary to enter the world of the film. Garland has almost completely excised that narrative convention. What most movies would take the first act to do; he does in about three minutes. He trusts you to think about what you’re seeing, and to put the puzzle pieces together quickly, so he can get on with his story. As someone who wants to be challenged by the films I see (especially when it comes to sci-fi), it was a nice change of pace from filmmakers who want you to check your brain at the door.
The time is the very near future. All internet search engines (sorry, Google) have been eclipsed by Bluebook, a tech company founded by Nathan Bateman (played by Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac). The mercurial computer coding genius institutes a company-wide lottery. The prize is spending a week with him at his sprawling private compound. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, last seen in Unbroken) is the promising young programmer who wins the lottery.
Gleeson plays Caleb with the right amount of intelligence and confoundedness. He’s clearly in over his head, and that’s exactly how I would feel in the same situation. He’s constantly thrown off balance by Nathan, who swings wildly from drunken anger to overly nice at any moment. Isaac’s Nathan is just about what we’ve all come to expect a young, brash tech billionaire to be. He’s like The Social Network’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, without any of the self-loathing or insecurities. He is coldly calculating, and we soon learn he may not be on the up-and-up.
The real reason Nathan has invited Caleb to his estate is so the eager coder can help test the tech titan’s latest project – an android with artificial intelligence so sophisticated, it’s indistinguishable from a human. Despite Garland’s great handling of the opening, the two have a pretty painful expository discussion, in which they check to make sure each other (and more importantly the audience) know what the Turing test is. It’s a test designed to ascertain if a computer is advanced enough to fool a human into thinking they are talking to another human, in case you didn’t know. There is a tweak, though – Caleb knows from the start that he is interacting with a robot. Ava (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) – is so advanced that it doesn’t matter. Nathan has moved to the next level. He wants to know if Ava is sophisticated enough to make Caleb feel like he is interacting with a human, even when he knows he is not. It’s time for the big ideas.
The question of what it means to be human, often posed with the possibility of scientists creating beings with something approaching real consciousness, has been a preoccupation of science fiction for nearly a century. Director Garland examines this trope in some fresh ways, and he creates a sense of mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. Much of the credit for the enigmatic story goes to Vikander’s performance. She brings an interesting mix of guilelessness and ambiguity to her character, and I could never quite get a handle on Ava. She seems naïve, which you might expect, since prior to Caleb’s arrival her only human contact has been with her creator. But, over the course of the film, it becomes apparent things are not what they seem, either with the tests or with Ava herself.
Nathan has designed Ava to be everything Caleb wants. You could see Ava as a fembot, serving the role in Ex Machina as the idealized woman that every man desires. She is beautiful, and seems to exist only to make men happy. Except Ava isn’t merely a male pleasure device because Garland inserts a key scene in the film where his characters discuss just that, exploring the nature of men’s unrealistic expectations of women. Rather than being just a representation of male fantasy, Ava is a critique of that fantasy. Her final actions in the film serve as a feminist shout – what it really means for women to follow their own desires.
I mentioned earlier that one of Garland’s previous screenplays, Sunshine, was fatally flawed. In that film, he tried to confound expectations by abruptly shifting character motivation in the third act. It put that movie in an irretrievable tail spin. He did almost the same thing in Ex Machina, but this time he got it right. The film starts by making you imagine the wonders of our own ingenuity, but by the end you are made to ponder what it would be like to create something you can’t control.