Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina' is a shrewd and funny inquisition into the implications of artificial intelligence
Ex Machina A24
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Sonoyo Mizuno
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
April 24, 2015
(out of four)
What is the proper response to manufacturing your own obsolescence? For Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire tech genius at the center of Ex Machina, the answer is a kind of fatalistic, good-humored despair.
In complete secrecy and apparently all by himself, he has done it. He has created a fully viable artificial intelligence - an authentically emotional, intelligent, even sexual being. Or, if not technically "authentic," at least close enough that it can pass the Turing test. How much is consciousness and how much is programming is a question that seems to be a mystery even to Nathan.
He has created a woman, of course - many of them, in fact, before finally getting it right - and named her Ava (Alicia Vikander). Finally satisfied with his creation, all he needs now is a witness. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a low-level programmer working for "Bluebook" - essentially a more powerful Google, of which Nathan is the founder and CEO - who has won, via random lottery, the chance to spend a week with Nathan at his top-secret, highly secured compound in the middle of nowhere. It is Caleb's privilege - and assigned duty - to get himself acquainted with Ava through a series of daily sessions, during which they are separated only by a glass partition.
But while Caleb and Ava are dutifully playing out their roles in Nathan's ongoing A.I. experiment, bigger issues are hovering above it all. Most movies about artificially intelligence touch on the implicit moral/ethical implications in some way or another; what's electrifying about writer/director Alex Garland's approach to the subject matter - and Oscar Isaac's towering performance as Nathan - is the unusual frankness with which they address the myriad questions they're faced with, and an unnerving acceptance of the competing emotional and existential reactions to what has taken place. Nathan has achieved a turning point in history and he knows it; it's his attitude that's unsettled - and at times unsettling. In a key conversation with Caleb, he acknowledges that he has, for all intents and purposes, brought about the end of humanity as the world's dominant life form. He looks to the future and begins to consider humans in the past tense. Is he proud of it, or frightened? Or both?
There's a sardonic twinkle in his eye when he talks about what he's done, and about Ava. He fancies himself a god-like figure - in one scene even re-writing, for posterity, something that Caleb says about him, in order to more concisely make that point - but as god-like figures go, his outlook on the future of his own species is awfully bleak. He frequently jokes about it. And then he drinks himself to sleep every night. That's at least two ways to make it hurt a little less. In terms of the immediate impact of his scientific breakthrough, he gives no apparent thought to wealth (he's already got plenty); and he clearly takes comfort in the idea of himself as a god. And yet he behaves as if he has arrived at the end, with no more worlds to conquer.
Isaac's performance, buoyed by Garland's writing, embodies the arrogance and hubris so common to bad-boy genius types in cinema, while quietly expressing a certain anguish - even fragility - to counteract the moral apathy. Consider the film's best sequence, a dramatic confrontation that suddenly shifts into an impromptu dance scene between Nathan and his assistant, Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), who, naturally, is one of his previous android prototypes. As "Get Down Saturday Night" blares overhead and the lighting changes to a hellish nightclub red, they dance in tandem - her dispassionately, him cheerfully, drunkenly, in mocking defiance of Caleb, who intended to have a serious conversation and now just stands there watching, mouth agape.
Just watch the scene play out and observe Nathan's body language. Here is a man who has conquered the act of creating intelligent life, and who believes he has altered the future of civilization forever. And in so many moments (this one in particular), there is a palpable callousness to his behavior. He appears contemptuous of his own creation - and yet he seems broken, self-loathing. He's treating her basically like a toy, and going out of his way to ignore the serious matters Caleb was attempting to discuss. It is at once the funniest, creepiest and most revealing scene in the movie.
The possibility that Nathan is a more malevolent figure than he would have Caleb believe is brought up early on, and it's consistent with a very smart pattern throughout Ex Machina of anticipating questions - both from the audience and from Caleb (and Ava, for that matter). The exact nature of Nathan's relationship with Ava, the reasons why Caleb was selected, all the possible deceptions various characters are leaving for one another, even questions about the nature of Caleb's identity - it's all handled so shrewdly, and with supreme foresight. Garland, the great screenwriter behind Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later, makes a smooth transition in his directorial debut. The film plays out in large part like a chamber drama, and the way Garland (and cinematographer Rob Hardy) shoot it underscores the volatile (and often obscured) power dynamics at play. The placement of the characters' bodies is careful and impressive - particularly in the frequent interactions between Caleb and Ava, as the film blurs the distinction between the observer and the observed.
Among the three of them, it becomes a glorious week-long dance of seduction and manipulation, primarily funneled through a nebbishy programmer trying to deduce the level of humanity of this impossible being, and only slowly becoming conscious of how much her (or its) beauty and personality is affecting his judgment, for better or worse. The performances are paramount, and while Isaac is certainly the standout, Vikander has perhaps the tougher task, and she lives up to the screenplay's lofty requirements. This is a film about A.I. designed to pass for human, and Vikander has to play her in such a way as to seem both submissive, and powerful enough for her own creator to fear her. One of my favorite details is how Garland (and, by proxy, Nathan) allows us to see the façade of Ava's mechanical body for most of the film, even while trying to convince us that she's ostensibly human. (The much easier decision would have been to have her appear fully human the entire time, but as with so many other things, Ex Machina takes the trickier and more rewarding route.)
While there's enough potent material to explore here that I may have liked to see it expanded even more (certain sequences and developments feel rushed), the fact remains it's not often we get to see a sci-fi thriller this thoughtful, with mythological ideas and Shakespearean (even Biblical) plot machinations, and that manages to hit such a strange combination of buttons. It is philosophical in one moment, erotic the next. Its levity can be broken up in an instant by an overwhelming sense of malice. Garland is perfectly content to keep us off-balance - to be talky and playful and frightening and potentially even alienating. Ex Machina trusts its audience, its risks pay off, and it leaves us with something inquisitive, haunting and triumphant.