There’s a long history of fear of machines in cinema. For every Bishop from Aliens, there are a dozen Terminators, Roy Battys or evil Marias. At first, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina looks like another tale of a robot that can’t be trusted, but as his four-hander plays, it becomes clear that the writer/director is pointing his finger at us.
Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is thrilled when he wins a competition to visit his genius employer at his mountain hideaway. It turns out that Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has a very specific reason for opening his door to one of his promising young minds. He wants someone to test his new robot creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) for artificial intelligence.
Soon, Caleb is taking a seat in front of Ava, engaging her in conversation and enjoying a verbal back and forth that shows that consciousness is tough to prove or disprove. But the longer Nathan stays in Ava’s company, the more complicated the situation and his feelings become. If Ava is self-aware, as she claims to be, and if so what right does Nathan or Caleb have to be testing her? What right do they have to keep her one side of a reinforced barrier? And why does Ava tell Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted?
Ex Machina might present itself as a thriller, but it’s the questions raised by Garland’s screenplay that really give the film its resonance. With its mountain setting, dangerous leaps forward in technology and driven creator, the story draws heavily on the spirit of Mary Shelley, except Garland throws us in after the “It’s alive!” event has happened. Rather than dealing with the problem of whether or not to take a leap, Nathan and Caleb are in the slipperier realm of moral responsibility.
Following standout turns in Frank and Calvary, Gleeson continues a superb run of performances, giving Caleb an eager-to-please naïveté that’s easily wounded. Watching him gradually grow to understand the extent of the quandary that he’s in as Ava begins flirting and appealing to his human decency is compelling, while Isaac finds a way to make his tech genius both repellent and magnetic. He’s eager to accept Caleb’s compliments and adapt them for potential soundbites and utterly aware of his own genius, while simultaneously mistreating his housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).
However, every time Caleb stands up to him or raises the question of morality, Nathan is able to poke holes in his protégé’s arguments or motives. Caleb might self-affirm as a good man and Nathan a tortured genius, but how they interact with their creation shows their true natures.
The character of Ava presents both men with a string of questions, and Vikander (Anna Karenina) is superb, poking, prodding and provoking to force Caleb to face the uncomfortable fact of her situation and ask the question of what happens if she fails her test. The design (a collaboration with comic artist Jock) is an excellent combination of human and machine that clearly establishes an otherness while retaining an unshakeable familiarity.
Those expecting a thriller may be surprised by Garland’s approach to the material. Beyond the fact that Caleb is staying with Nathan for a week, there’s no real ticking-clock, and the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting your adrenaline pumping. However, it’s the questions that will stay with you, the queasy sense of unease that comes from realising that a situation you think you understand is far more complicated than it appears.
Ex Machina is a gripping piece of work that strikes a nerve.