Alicia Vikander’s synthetic body and an in-mountain mansion vie for your eyes, but it’s Oscar Isaac who steals the show in Ex Machina, a decent thriller about technology and identity.
The first thing we know about Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) — before we even know his name — is that he won. Yay!
R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
He’s immediately on a helicopter over a mountainous landscape, and then dropped off downstream from a modernist mountain house embedded in the crags.
What he won, we find out, is a week with the founder of Bluebook, where he works as a programmer. Bluebook is Google, basically, and its founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is Sergey Brin, basically. Instead of self-driving cars, Nathan has been tinkering with cutting edge artificial intelligence, complete with sexy robotic body (Alicia Vikander). Nathan invites Caleb to apply the Turing Test to the robot named Ava — to see if she can pass as human.
Obviously, Caleb knows Ava is a machine — you can see the glowing cables that run through her torso, legs, and arms. And obviously Nathan knows how the tests are going — Google (I mean Bluebook) knows everything about everyone. Everything in Nathan’s mountain retreat is computerized. Cameras and microphones capture everything. And Caleb had to sign a massive non-disclosure agreement before being allowed out of his bedroom.
Still, the script acknowledges, there’s value in human conversation. When the power goes out while Caleb is talking to Ava — a frequent occurrence — Ava reveals a side to her personality that Nathan doesn’t know about. As for Nathan, we get the sense he wants to know if Caleb could fall in love with Ava.
Caleb is gee-whizzed. Gleeson plays him as a flattered geek, honored to be in the same house with the brilliant founder of his company, and amazed at the marvel that is Ava. But sometimes Nathan makes him nervous.
Nathan seems to have a darker side that isn’t always nice. For one thing, he misquotes Caleb’s guarded praise, choosing to hear sycophantic worship instead. Nathan reveals that much of his research came from taking things that weren’t his — a completely plausible theft of personal data that makes it all the more disturbing.
The fact that Nathan has built sexual robots is quite creepy. He has a smart explanation for doing so. But then he tells Caleb “you could fuck her, and she would enjoy it.” If you think that’s troubling, then I suppose you think of Ava as a person.
Of course, by casting a woman as Ava, rather than digitally building her, the movie has chosen our side for us. Vikander puts on her best glassy stare to convey her semi-robot-ness. She’s fine, but one gets the sense she was cast because of her dancer’s body, and not for her acting talent.
Isaac’s Nathan didn’t get where he is by being a nerd-brain. He is smart, but he’s also a competitor who sees business as a zero-sum game. His preferred exercise regimen is hitting the ol’ punching bag, and he can be a bully.
Nathan has a large painting by Jackson Pollock in his house. Isaac explains its presence in an impassioned speech; Pollock’s drive wasn’t conscious, but it also wasn’t purely random. For Nathan, tapping into that impulse is the key to the success of creating artificial intelligence.
A later scene out on the steep mountainside lets Nathan bare his soul a little. He’s not entirely happy about the direction the world is going, even though he’s the one leading the way. He’s not entirely sure, as a human being, that he wants to be surpassed by his own creation.
But my favorite shot of Nathan is when, a little tipsy, he busts his John Travolta disco moves unselfconsciously, with power and precision.
Twists and Endings
In the first minutes I had some notion of how the film might play out. I won’t say whether I was right or wrong, only that the movie didn’t follow a completely predictable path, nor concern itself too much with obvious twists.
A visual gimmick introduced in the first scene — Gleeson’s face as read by a computer — threw me off and kept me on edge. I shouldn’t have made so much out of it. Maybe that made the film seem like a bigger, bolder vision than it turned out to be.
On hindsight, I think maybe writer/director Alex Garland was aiming for more than he achieved.