Deep Focus: Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a high-IQ sci-fi film that connects viscerally and on every other level to audiences of all kinds. It’s exhilarating to see this movie in a theater packed with people rapt in the taut spell of its life-or-death drama and rippling with nervous laughter at its frisky, kinky sexuality and absurdist undertones. The subject is artificial intelligence, but the writer, Alex Garland, in his debut as a director, makes it about traditional intelligence and emotional intelligence, too. Though Garland builds dark twists into his realistic fantasy, he also imbues it with unexpected streaks of sympathy—for humans and for humanoids—that actually add to the tension and the horror.
This coiled-wire story unfolds within the confined research compound and conceptually limitless world of a genius tycoon, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He wrote the base code for the world’s dominant search engine when he was 13. Now he dwells in his own Fortress of Solitude in a mountainous northern clime. (The published script places the action in Alaska, but the stunning locations are Norwegian.) The movie starts when a young programmer wins a contest in Nathan’s company. His name is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), and he looks impossibly boyish even for a lad in his mid-twenties.
The grand prize is to spend a week with Nathan at his lair. Caleb soon learns that he won’t just pal around with the boss in a grand-scale goodwill gesture, he’ll also test Nathan’s current object of obsession—a talking robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), who could be Caleb’s dream girl. Her fresh face is crafted from some creamy flesh-like substance, and her fascinatingly curvy physique is molded from various metals and fibers that look tensile yet inviting. Special-effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst has cited Brancusi as an influence on her design, but Ava plays like a runway superstar at the height of peekaboo fashion. She moves like a silvery vision—pretty and in synch. Apart from opaque patches on her chest and hips, she resembles a sensual version of the “Visible Woman” modeling kit, with fluid new technologies and snaky wiring viewable through her meshwork instead of bones, arteries, nerves, muscles, and veins. You notice strings of lights running down her neck like a vertical necklace or looping through her innards like warning lights at a rollercoaster turn. She’s the best-looking automaton ever—and the first that may be capable of thinking like a person.
Nathan wants Caleb to be the human component in his version of the Turing test. In the course of his getaway week he will interact with Ava and decide whether there’s any difference between this thinking robot and a real live human. Caleb says that to play “the Imitation Game” by classic rules, “the machine should be hidden from the examiner.” Nathan argues that Ava’s voice and verbal responses are so lifelike that Caleb would have to consider her human if he didn’t look at her. The true test, he contends, is whether Caleb can see Ava as the robot she is yet respond to her thoughts—and, yes, her emotions—as if they’re real.
The “Ava Sessions” comprise a superbly cunning setup for a surprisingly affecting sci-fi movie that’s also a merciless nail-biter. The content is cutting-edge science and the script is replete with debates, but Nathan’s challenge to Caleb puts the emphasis on his feelings and his ability to analyze the evidence of his senses. The narrative twists make viewers judge the depth of their own feelings and the keenness of their own senses. If you go in knowing it’s a thriller, you still wonder, in a good way, what kind of suspense is being generated, even as the film exerts an ineluctable pull. For long stretches Garland avoids conventional conflict and jeopardy while making clear that the stakes are as momentous as they are in a sci-fi epic like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (another movie that turns genre melodrama upside down, in an optimistic way). After all, bonding with the first fully human-like AI is as epochal an event as communicating up close with an ET. Ava is so enticing that Garland achieves erotic shock and awe.
That’s partly a tribute to Vikander, who at 26 has established herself as a performer of immense charm and range, breathing a full spectrum of poignancy into the ultimate ingénue role of Kitty in Anna Karenina (12), and summoning the passionate smarts needed to play Britain’s Princess Caroline Mathilde as an Enlightenment heroine in the terrific historical romance A Royal Affair (12). As Ava, Vikander explodes the concept of tabula rasa. She is not merely blank. She plays a multitude of nascent emotions infinitesimally small, as if Ava realizes how closely she’s being studied and knows that any flicker of her eye, upturn of her chin, or nibble of her lip creates a thunderous mood change. As a character, Ava is in turn touching and eerie. You may not realize how witty Vikander’s performance is until after the movie is over. Vikander does to moviegoers what Ava does to Caleb—draws us ever closer in.
Ava turns the tables on Caleb early on, noting, “You learn about me and I learn nothing about you”—forcing her interrogator to admit that it’s not a balanced foundation for friendship, as if being friends or lovers had always been their goal. Before long, it’s evident that she’s quicker at reading him than vice versa. She says she can tell that he’s attracted to her because of his “micro-expressions.” That’s a great word to describe the subtleties Gleeson invests in all his roles, even as the hero’s Army Air Force buddy in the bludgeoning Unbroken. Right now he’s nonpareil at playing a bright young man who can be affable to a fault, but is also wily and proud. He’s spontaneous and archetypal in Ex Machina—a scrawny Everyman for a wired world. He’s funny and sympathetic when he expresses fear, especially when he worries that shacking up with Ava would be like living with a lie detector.
In a narrative deck stacked with wild cards, Isaac’s Nathan is the craziest. He’s a mad scientist who is oppressively physical—a super-nerd who comes on as a crude guy’s guy. A workout fiend with a mysteriously silent mistress/assistant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), he shaves his pate down to a stubble, lets his beard and moustache go full, and sports oblong wire-rim glasses. Nathan is a mess of contradictions. He’s a control freak who gets drunk. He’s a connoisseur who puts Schubert and Bach on his sound system and Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt on his walls but pretends he’s wowed by Caleb’s eloquence and cowed by his cultural references—notably a glib nod to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. After Isaac’s vapid Michael Corleone imitation in A Most Violent Year, it’s wonderful to see him comically original and creepy, whether disco-dancing with Kyoko or asking Caleb “Who you gonna call?” Isaac turns an unhinged knowingness into a horror-comic style.
Garland implants multiple themes in each strand of his simple plot. Even the asides in this movie are continuously intriguing, like Nathan assuring Caleb that his facial-recognition key-card will be a convenience, since it opens only rooms that should be guest-accessible. How often in this connected age do we barter away freedom for convenience?
In his most revealing speech, Nathan tells Caleb that his competitors thought search engines were “a map of what people were thinking. Actually, they were a map of how people were thinking. Impulse, response. Fluid, imperfect. Patterned, chaotic.” Those last half-dozen words sum up the look Garland, production designer Mark Digby, and cinematographer (as well as camera operator) Rob Hardy have devised for this movie. Garland and Digby imagine that Nathan carved his mostly subterranean grey-wood compound straight out of a craggy hill, then filled it with pieces that cry out “Scandinavian Modern.” It may be chilly, but it’s fun. For me, it evoked memories of Dr. Morbius’s rock-walled sanctuary in Forbidden Planet. Nathan lines one hallway with a display of masks through the ages. When Ava peers at them, the image is part Return to Oz, part Time-Life Books “March of Progress.” Whatever you think of him, Nathan is a genius who cross-pollinates digital and organic thinking. On the wall behind his computer he’s mounted a veritable cliff-side of Post-Its.
You think you see daggers of thought jump between his and Caleb’s eyes—that’s how precisely Garland and Hardy frame tense, elegant compositions. But they’re not slaves to formalism. Ava prepares herself for a fantasy date with Caleb in an intimate montage of loose, handheld shots, well cut by Mark Day. The movie is simultaneously playful and serious: blue bolts seem to shoot through Caleb’s ginger hair from the software Nathan embeds in company computers.
The movie is fraught with possibilities. Is Nathan genuine when he argues that every sort of consciousness contains a sexual element, or is he merely bending logic to explain his urges? Is Ava devoted to self-preservation or is she also in love, at least for a time, with Caleb? Is she ultimately a misanthrope, and if so, does that make the film misogynistic? (I say the latter notion is humorless, if not ridiculous.) And what responsibility does Nathan owe any conscious beings of his own creation after they’ve outlived their usefulness?
Ex Machina is the best kind of speculative fiction: its action is brisk, its characters startling, and its meanings multifarious.