In Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina”, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a highly receptive robot who can speak, interact, have an intelligent conversation, tell jokes, flirt, and possibly display the true signs of human intelligence. In a conversation with the protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), she can pick up on the “micro expressions” in his face and tell that he’s lying, that he’s uncomfortable or that he may even be in love. She’s gifted with tiny details that make her personality so memorable.
“Ex Machina” succeeds not on the broad strokes of its clever sci-fi premise, but in the little “micro expressions” that define its character, style, ideas, thrilling pulse, and entrancing tone. It’s a finely tuned machine of a movie, with beauty and excitement that make it human.
When we meet Caleb, his computer is sizing him up from his web cam. His expressions and his excitement are recorded as he learns he has won a prestigious contest. Deep in reclusive Alaskan forests, Caleb arrives by helicopter to the subterranean home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a computer genius who we learn is the mastermind behind the world’s most widely used search engine, Blue Book. Caleb is one of his star coders, and as part of this contest, he has been chosen to observe and test Nathan’s latest creation, a super sophisticated version of Artificial Intelligence known as Ava. Caleb’s goal will be to take The Turing Test, and see if by the end of his week stay he still knows he’s talking to a robot.
Garland treats this concept with an elegant, fine touch. Caleb’s arrival at Nathan’s secret facility isn’t announced or explained as a procedural, but is gradually understood. Already we feel like a rat in a maze, with the sterile colors, no windows and low ceilings and corridors that make us feel both trapped and observed. Isaac’s performance as Nathan too is highly adept. We’ve been given only background details that he’s a computer genius and a titan of industry, but even before we know that, Isaac makes him to be an uncomfortable figure nothing like we expected. He’s a casual, cavalier bro, the kind of alpha, powerful figure so comfortable in his own skin that he makes others feel nervous around him.
But Vikander is the real star of the show. Garland has given Ava a slender, silvery sleek figure. She has a human face molded over a metal frame, and we can peer through her shimmering, metallic body to see her inner workings. Garland has done this such that we can literally see inside her, spiritually and physically.
Caleb is placed in a small room with see through glass separating him from Ava while Nathan observes. He asks questions about her past and her hobbies, and she proves to be charming and candid. Vikander’s quiet, yet open performance allows her to delicately toe the line between AI and Caleb’s immediate dream girl. Vikander is a former ballerina, and Ava has the grace of one. But Nathan and Caleb wonder if she’s for real, or if she’s an incredible simulation of a person having a conversation.
In later sessions, Ava makes jokes and asks about Caleb’s own past and hobbies. “Ex Machina” at this point starts to resemble a hybrid of Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Shane Carruth’s “Primer”, with a beautiful affectation for a computerized presence emerging out of thin air, all while the suspicion of Nathan’s test and of the discussion of science and AI theory create a simmering tension.
But Garland has more up his sleeve, and his ideas offer both a powerful insight into human nature while rewriting some of the rules of artificial intelligence in science fiction. We’ve been told that robots cannot feel love or emotion, but “Ex Machina” is the first film that would beg to differ. Why does the robot need sexuality, Caleb questions? Humans weren’t programmed to love or feel attractions, but then of course we were. These animal urges aren’t learned but are instinctual and automatic, coded into our DNA. The idea is Garland’s additional jab at men, with Nathan’s brutish, often drunken behavior and disregard for his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) suggest man’s base desire to control women and dream of creating an ideal woman. It’s no coincidence then that Ava is a “female”.
Garland goes deeper and suggests through a chilling look at the transparency of the digital age that search engines have come to understand how humans think, not just what we’re thinking. It is another detail in Garland’s modest scale that helps add up to important spiritual questions. “Is it strange to have made something that hates you,” Ava asks of her creator. Nathan’s character is constantly a curious one because he could be playing God, or he could be just tinkering with a computer program with emotions that are an illusion. He could be a dangerous loose cannon, or he could be more innocent and clueless than he lets on.
Some critics have argued that Garland’s film ends predictably, and that it lacks a compelling and surprising Deus Ex Machina from which the film draws its name. But what remains unexpected is just what note Garland chooses to end this story on. Throughout “Ex Machina” he has been juggling tones of surreal suspense and touching romance, and while any number of endings could have put it closer in line with “Blade Runner,” “Moon” or “A.I.”, Garland chooses one that’s all his own, one that spins what it means to be human in a darker and unexpected light.