Ex Machina is a Frankenstein story for the age of big data -- a methodical, disturbing meditation on the increasingly realistic prospect of artificial intelligence and what that reality might mean for all of us flawed humans who couldn't dream of accessing and processing all the knowledge, information and wisdom of human history in an instant.
There's little doubt that writer and director Alex Garland is just as afraid of A.I. as the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Where Garland would seem to differ is in who he fears for, and in how that fear might be fully realized.
Garland's film is situated directly on the precipice of just such terrifying history. Caleb, a young coder played by Domhnall Gleeson, wins a week-long visit with the CEO of his company, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. He is whisked from the confines of his office -- all double-monitor setups and text editors -- to his boss' estate -- vast, remote, in some piece of non-descript Northern wilderness (Alaska? Norway? Canada?).
From the moment of his arrival, everything is just a little bit off. The helicopter lands some distance from Nathan's residence. That's as close as it is allowed, the pilot tells Caleb. He drags his roller bag -- an unfortunate choice of luggage given the circumstances -- to the door of the compound where a key card is spit out and he is granted entry. Once inside, Nathan reveals the purpose of the excursion.
This is no corporate perk. Caleb is present to administer a Turing test on Ava, an A.I. prototype developed by Nathan during his time in solitude. A Turing test, for those unfamiliar, is the benchmark for verifying true artificial intelligence. I’m boiling this down for the purposes of a simple movie review, but essentially if a human can not tell it is interacting with a machine when he or she in fact is, then the threshold for A.I. has been met.
Proctoring such an examination is challenging enough on such surprise notice, but as the unsettling oddities pile up around him, it pushes Caleb to a breaking point. Nathan, intimidating enough as both boss and genius to his employee, lets slip within moments of their meeting that he has been drinking heavily by himself, and he does so while working over a punching bag.
Isaac, head shaved, sporting a beard reminiscent of Kimbo Slice, hungover and perspiring heavily, conjures up a tech bro gone all Col. Kurtz. His creation does nothing to allay any concerns Caleb might have. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is a technical marvel. But there’s an unmistakable sadness to her eyes, one that is made all the more remarkable by the fact that “skin” only covers her face and ears. The rest of her is circuitry and what appears to be neoprene.
That sadness is fleshed out over a series of sessions with Caleb, the bulk of which are captured on video by Nathan. It is the result of a quite adversarial — menacing, even — relationship between her and Nathan that is revealed, for the most part, when Ava cuts the power supply and, for a few moments, is able to speak to Caleb without being recorded.
As the week progresses, Caleb morphs in to a potential savior for Ava — the kind of lonely, wiry protagonist we’re supposed to root for. Nathan — the creator — seems like more and more of a monster. Ava, meanwhile, somehow emerges as the most human of all. She is imprisoned, after all, and the soft-spoken Vikander does a terrific job of convincing you that that imprisonment is a great injustice.
The undercurrent running through all of this is a robot-eroticism between Caleb and Ava that, um, raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Or, as put more bluntly by the belligerent Nathan, yes, Ava could get intimate with Caleb, and, yes, she would enjoy it.
Ex Machina is nothing if not deliberate. Each interaction between Ava and Caleb leaves you rooting for them a little bit more. Each time Nathan appears on screen, a sense of impending dread grows and grows. It all builds up to three twists, one after another, that make perfect sense given the construct of Garland’s story, but are stunning nonetheless.
This is science fiction at its best, crafted by a gifted storyteller in Garland (who makes his directorial debut with this film) and put in the hands of a brilliant young cast. Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander have their parts to play, and they play them nearly perfectly. It is Vikander who stands out here. She is Frankenstein’s monster updated for the A.I. age, and her performance compels you to wonder what humanity is after all. Ever since Mary Shelley first imagined The Modern Prometheus, that’s what great sci-fi has been all about.