Written and directed by Alex Garland
Talented coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), working for global search engine Blue Book, wins a company lottery to join the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his mountain retreat for a week. The house is beautiful, a glass and concrete hideout—actually located in Norway. Caleb is automatically issued a passcard by the house itself for access to (part of) it.
Nathan is both curious and cagey, an alpha male version of Mark Zuckerberg. He enjoys boxing and lifting weights when he’s not changing the world with his big brain. Caleb is awkward and easily impressed, but his demeanour changes when he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the perfectly poised android woman Nathan has created. Nathan wants Caleb to perform a variant of the Turing Test, checking Ava’s bona fides. Is she an artificial intelligence? Or is she just a complex computer programmed to appeal to men, a sex-bot?
This is where the meat of the movie lies, and where we get invested. Garland, a novelist (The Beach, The Tesseract) and screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) has chosen the perfect material to make his debut as a director: exploring the pairing of allure and anxiety around our modern tech—a 21st Century Bride of Frankenstein. This could be an especially elegant episode of Black Mirror. (That’s a comparison I intend as a compliment of the highest order.)
Of course Ava is beautiful. Of course she’s intended to attract Caleb, and, presumably, a good portion of the audience. This is a bit of a reductive trope in the area of cinematic gender politics, and a tired one; the sexy robot.
But the film is self-aware. It asks: What would men, especially socially awkward, isolated men, do if they had the power to create artificial intelligence? They’d do this. The question we must ask ourselves: Is Ava self-aware? And, if she is, what are her rights?
The film cleverly poses more questions:
How is Nathan manipulating the situation, observing the interactions between Caleb and Ava via CCTV? How much agency does Ava have? Is she actually orchestrating a series of power fluctuations in the facility to allow for privacy from Nathan’s gaze and true moments of intimacy with Caleb? Or is that actually Nathan’s doing? Is Caleb tweaking the test to benefit his own hidden agenda, pulling the rug out from under his host?
And what exactly is the deal with Nathan’s silent, pliable housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno)?
Gleeson has cornered the market in slightly befuddled ginger manboys on the afore mentioned Black Mirror and last year’s terrific Frank; he’s easy to sympathize with as our ambassador into this hermetically sealed world, though perhaps not a reliable narrator.
With Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac is proving himself to be one of the most potent performers in his cohort—he gives Nathan a simmering, undeniable menace. And Vikander, who I don’t recall seeing in anything before this, does this thing with very singular movements; her Ava slightly mannered but also graceful. Her performance and character relies on motion as much as dialogue.
I really loved this movie while I was in it. It’s got a terrific production design, a hypnotic score (co-created by Geoff Barrow of Portishead), and the feel of the best of hard science fiction cinema going back to the 1970s. The sheen of Ava’s cybernetic components is gorgeous to see, some utterly convincing CGI.
While watching, the transitions and finale felt seamless and exactly right, but in hindsight I think the film’s perfect orbit decays a little in its third act. I wish some of the ideas of the piece, so sharp in the midsection, were sustained right through to the end. Instead there’s a trade-off as we move into thriller territory. While there’s a certain inevitability to what happens, I don’t think the questions the film raises about consciousness and motivation are entirely or satisfyingly answered.
Yet it’s a film I can’t wait to sit down with once again to reassess. The posing of those questions is something to appreciate, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more answers are provided on a second viewing.
Ex Machina opens in Halifax at The Oxford on May 8