Indy Datta reviews Alex Garland’s directing debut, and steers clear of spoilers.
Ex Machina opens with Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) – a young coder employed at the world’s biggest search engine company – learning that he’s won a staff lottery to spend a week hanging out with the company’s reclusive genius founder, known only as Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he gets to Nathan’s house, a sleek modernist riff on Tony Stark’s billionaire shagmansion/cool-stuff geekbro playhouse, only accessible by helicopter, and inhabited only by Nathan and his non-anglophone Japanese housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoyo Mizuno), he learns that he will have a job to do. He is to be the human interlocutor in a Turing test, so that Nathan can decide whether his latest invention, an android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), is truly sentient or is merely delivering an adept simulation of human intelligence.
Of course, the Turing test is not capable of elucidating that distinction, and as Caleb points out, the question of Ava fooling him into believing that she is human doesn’t arise when he can see that she isn’t. Nathan’s response is a shrug – this is to be an enhanced version of the Turing test; if Caleb comes to believe or feel that Ava is human even though he knows she is a machine, she will have passed, history will have been made, and the world changed.
Ex Machina plays out for its first hour as a talky, stagey four-hander, somewhat indebted to Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth (filmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Kenneth Branagh), alternating between scenes in which Caleb and Ava meet and talk, separated by a glass screen, and scenes in which Nathan gets drunk and interrogates Caleb about his developing relationship with Ava, and bullies and manipulates him, and Kyoko is just slightly too conspicuously mutely mysterious. Garland marshals his scenes and sequences largely with muscular confidence, elegantly creating a mood of paranoid claustrophobia, in which the motivations of each participant in his drama will be called into question (with occasional injections of beautifully modulated tonal unpredictability, like the scene in which Nathan and Kyoko dance to disco music, which comes out of nowhere). And the construction of the story in this first hour is equally elegant; the film alluding to a variety of fictional traditions that it could equally plausibly be heir to, subtly unmooring the audience’s expectations of where the narrative might go. Will Garland ultimately take his cue from the film’s fairy-tale overtones (most obvious in Nathan’s Bluebeard-esque admonition that Caleb must not enter any room his electronic key fob doesn’t give him access to); will Nathan’s explicit invocation of the legend of Prometheus (and thus Frankenstein) hold the key to the mystery; or will Ava and Caleb’s story mirror the recent spate of films (most notably Spike Jonze’s Her) in which men fall in love with nominally female Artificial Intelligences?
Like Jonze’s film, Ex Machina ultimately engages with the artificial intelligence question in a fairly superficial way – Nathan’s purported insight that allowed him to create Ava, that the way people use search engines tells us what people desire and thus how they think, is unconvincing, and only resonates within the scene of its revelation, as part of a glibly satirical moment when Nathan tells Caleb that, natch, every smartphone and social media user in the world has been unwittingly contributing to his data collection. But if the idea that reverse-engineering the Google autofill box leads to artificial intelligence doesn’t address the conundrum that Nathan puts to Caleb early in the week (does a chess computer even know that it’s playing chess?), could Garland be up to something else?
Maybe Caleb’s approach to his interactions with Ava is less like a Turing test, and more like someone, asked to consider a fiction, testing the limits of their willing suspension of disbelief? That thought crystallises the film’s approach to the question of the male gaze, particularly when it is applied to the representation of android women in cinema, which has tended to reinforce an essentialist model of gender identity as far back as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (and in Her, even without an android body, Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is defined by her sexuality and – more troublingly – by her sexual availability to Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly). Without giving too much of the plot away, Nathan has designed Ava to be, while very obviously not organic, sexually attractive (and functional), and in particular, to be so to Caleb; and Garland and Vikander (whose physical and vocal precision in the role is striking) also work to make Ava intriguing to the audience, as she appears to channel a series of cinematic archetypes of femininity, modulating from helpless damsel in distress to manic pixie dream girl, to femme fatale, and beyond. Caleb’s evolving view of, and relationship with, Ava, can thus be read as a historic distillation of a male-centric audience’s evolving (or, as the case may be, not evolving) view of screen women.
Many of the films Alex Garland has written before now have, in the last act, spun out of control as their conceptual ambition slipped out of sync with their genre (the big exception for me being the beautifully-realised straight down the line genre purism of Dredd), and Ex Machina similarly finds itself ultimately in a place where its official story about the technological singularity, any possible subtext about narrative and representation, and the story of its characters can’t all be satisfyingly reconciled. The last half hour of the film feels dully preordained (and suffers from a few big plot holes), and it is here that one feels the lack of characterisation beyond the archetypical in the characters other than Ava (the mad scientist, the dweebish patsy, the geisha: this notwithstanding the fine work from all the actors, and Garland’s effortless way with dialogue), which might have led to a less predictable way out of the story. On the whole, though, Ex Machina is great, mind-stretching fun, and cements Garland’s status as a film maker to watch.