Directed by Alex Garland.
2015. Rated R, 108 minutes.
Caleb (Gleeson) is a hot-shot programmer at Bluebook, the world's most popular search engine. When he wins a company-wide contest, his prize is a trip to the middle of nowhere to spend a week at the mansion of Nathan (Isaac), the company's CEO. When he gets there, he finds out that it's not just the boss' house, but a full-blown research facility and that he's there to help with a super-secret project. Nathan has built a robot, whom he named Ava (Vikander), and given it what he says is the most advanced artificial intelligence the world has ever seen. He wants Caleb to see if it passes the Turing Test. In short, Nathan wants to know if Ava can convince Caleb he's interacting with a real human being. The trio is only joined by Kyoto (Mizuno), a maid who speaks no English. Since nothing is as it seems, Caleb trying to figure out what the hell is going on ensues.
Initially, the movie draws us in on the question of can the artificial be made to feel human. It's one that has always fascinated us. However, the story actually turns on another grand question: What makes us human? To answer either of those questions is to inform the other. The film does this, as well. It presents us with things we need answers to only to have those answers lead to more questions. As a result, we feel as if we're watching Caleb fall helplessly down a bottomless rabbit hole. We're aware that he's in deep, but we're just not sure how deep. Whenever we think we've figured out, he drops another level. Domhnall Gleeson does an excellent job making us feel he's truly bewildered by what's happening. Nathan, ever the puppeteer, appears to be holding all the cards.
Referring to Nathan as a puppeteer brings us to the film's ultimate inspiration. Ex Machina clearly owes a lot to the classic fairy tale Pinocchio. Nathan is nothing, if not a sinister, or at least a suspicious, version of Gepetto, pulling as many strings as needed to content his heart. To be fair, neither sinister or suspicious are accurate descriptions of Nathan. He is, however, a man with an obvious god complex. As if to underline this issue and type it in all caps, his home is rigged so that he sees and hears everything. More importantly, he's hellbent on replicating humanity through technology rather than nature. It's as much about challenging the supremacy of whatever deities may exist as it is about making technological advances. Oscar Isaac, rapidly becoming one of my favorite performers, handles the role exceptionally well. His Nathan is the classic tormented genius. What bothers him is not what he doesn't know. He seems to have all the answers. His problem is how to make it so that us mere mortals have no choice but to bow before his greatness. To do this, he needs a perfect machine, the perfect puppet - one that dances on his string while appearing to be moving of its own free will.
This is where Ava comes in. From the very first time we see her, she puts us in the same position as Caleb. Like him, we're administering her the Turing test. We know that she's a robot, but we're trying to see how human her reactions are. We're checking to see if she really exhibits the human capacity for learning and the depth for emotion. We do this subconsciously by convincing ourselves those are just the things he is looking for without realizing we're doing the same thing. In that sense, the movie's success hinges on whether or not the viewer can align themselves with Caleb. If we can feel his curiosity and frustrations, we'll feel empathy for his peculiar situation. The movie elevates itself further if Ava passes her test and we can relate to her. To what extent do we believe in her humanity? If she manages to rope us in, she becomes more than an inanimate object masquerading as the real thing. She becomes a damsel in distress begging to be saved. We root for her. To engender our sympathy, Alicia Vikander exudes the perfect sense of innocence. She truly feels like a person meeting someone outside of her family for the very first time.
Spectacular visuals aid Vikander's performance. Before we ever meet Ava, her world is set up perfectly. Nathan's home/research facility feels sterile and cold. There seems to be no room for anything other facts, figures, and the things they come together to create. Once we lay eyes on Ava, it's clear she's one of those creations. Her appearance means that she will maintain the awkwardness needed to make us believe that each experience is a new one for her. During a pivotal scene late in the movie, things veer into horror territory with some really creepy imagery that serves to illuminate certain aspects of our tale. From that point on, we're in a different movie than the one we've been watching. To the film's credit, this is not a jarring change, but merely the next step in a logical succession. This isn't to say that it's predictable. It's not. However, what happens makes sense within the context of the story.
It's the speed of those steps, or the lack thereof, that creates the biggest problem of Ex Machina. If you're not totally into it from the outset, it might drag. After all, it's a string of conversations. A number of these exist on an egghead level. That means a lot of deep, philosophical, mostly humorless discussions. They are the sort that regardless of however many of us would like to have, some number less wouldn't mind listening to someone else have it. I find it all fascinating stuff, but would understand if anyone were bored by it. We cruise along for quite some time until the gas pedal is mashed late in the proceedings. It's a little more of a problem because the movie was marketed as sci-fi action flick in the mold of I, Robot. It isn't that, at all. Ex Machina deals with similar themes, but has a lot more on its mind. This is most evidenced by the finale. When this movie ends, we're not sure whether it's a good thing, or not. What does it mean for her? More importantly, what does it mean for us?