Ex Machina is a superior techno-thriller that asks a lot more questions than it’s willing to answer. Filmmakers have long exploited the dangers of artificial intelligence, but few have the courage to examine the hubris behind Man’s technological self-destruction. Alex Garland’s assured directorial debut showcases a patient filmmaker adept at world building. Like all good sci-fi films with big ideas and bold visuals, you’ll be thinking about Ex Machina long after you leave the theater.
The opening scenes of Ex Machina are like a tutorial in non-verbal storytelling. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, somewhat naive computer coder, wins a contest to spend one week with his mysterious and brilliant boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). A helicopter drops Caleb into a desolate field, where the pilot advises him to, “Follow the river” to find Nathan’s secluded estate. It’s a stellar sequence that immediately hooks us into this clandestine world.
Once sequestered in Nathan’s fortified laboratory, Caleb meets the female android Ava (Alicia Vikander). With her mechanized innards revealed through a blend of shimmering mesh and transparent exoskeleton, Ava’s design manages to be wholly unhuman while still remaining plausible. In fact, nothing in this film, even the android, feels entirely out of the realm of (current) possibilities. Caleb’s unenviable task is determining if Ava is truly self-aware or simply a byproduct of her advanced programming.
Structurally, Ex Machina is deviously simple; increasingly tender sessions between Caleb and Ava are juxtaposed with increasingly confrontational sessions between Caleb and Nathan. That’s your movie, repeated over and over, until the tension is almost unbearable. The most interesting relationship, between Nathan and Ava, remains tantalizingly vague. They share only two brief scenes together, and are both absolute doozies. There’s clearly something freaky happening between this self-proclaimed God and his willful creation, but director Garland keeps everything under wraps. All we know is that an elaborate shell game was already underway before Caleb ever arrived on the scene. Whether or not Caleb can decode the game in time to save himself becomes the central conflict driving the action.
While Ex Machina is a fascinating rumination on the nature of A.I., it gets most of its thematic juice from sexual objectification. We don’t know if Nathan’s ultimate goal is to create an Austin Powers-esque army of sex-bots, but he’s certainly not interested in hanging out with android dudes. The awkward courtship between Caleb and Ava, too, grows darker as Caleb’s obsession deepens. His objectivity evaporates and Ava becomes a sexualized fantasy for him. Ava obediently plays along, even dressing up and “humanizing” herself for Caleb, but at what cost? Garland has a lot of fun with the notion of de-humanizing something that isn’t even human. Ultimately, a lack of understanding between the sexes proves more detrimental than any computer glitch.
Isaac gives a mesmerizing performance as Nathan, a billionaire Internet pioneer with the world’s most powerful search engine at his disposal. Like all of his characters, Garland keeps Nathan’s motivations a bit shadowy. He may be capable of anything… or nothing at all. Hard drinking and tightly wound, Nathan spouts rhetorical philosophy about playing God while he disco dances with his mysterious housemaid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Nathan is a Rorschach of good and evil who Garland overtly compares to Oppenheimer; a man destined to create the machines of ultimate destruction, simply because he can.
Garland’s visual canvas is hewn from the deep blues and bright reds of the laboratory, interspersed with lush greens from the surrounding Norwegian wilderness. Moving from Nathan’s antiseptic laboratory into this outdoor paradise, complete with waterfalls and glaciers, is like coming out of a movie theater in the middle of the day; it takes your eyes a bit of time to adjust. It keeps you off balance, as if these environments don’t belong together. Garland makes one flawless decision after another as he constructs the clashing worlds of fevered humanity and calculating machines.
In one of his early meetings with Ava, Caleb describes the knowledge paradigm puzzle designed by Frank Jackson called “Mary in the black and white room.” He explains that Mary has spent her entire life studying and acquiring every physical fact about the known world, all from the safety of her black and white room. When Mary finally ventures outside and sees color for the first time, she learns something entirely new about her world; what it is like to see color. Meaning that, knowing what color is—the physical principles of its creation and texture—is quite different than the physical act of experiencing it. To experience is to know. The brilliance of Ex Machina is that even after the story is over and all has been revealed, we still don’t know which character Mary is. Is it Ava, the cold android in a glass bubble who yearns to stand on street corners and ogle passersby? Or is it the obsessive men from the outside world, who want to create a perfect human surrogate to demonstrate their technological mastery? It’s the kind of conundrum that makes good sci-fi so much damn fun. Ex Machina is a film that will only gain in power and popularity over time.