Eccentric Internet billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) builds artificial intelligence robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Lowly programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, convincingly playing an American) is invited to Nathan's middle-of-nowhere retreat to see whether Ava passes the Turing Test—in other words, to determine whether the AI can successfully pass for human. Things go predictably, if quietly, haywire.
There are many things to admire in Alex Garland's directorial debut. He has a feel for enclosed spaces and builds a convincing sense of dread, as Caleb falls under Ava's spell and becomes more disillusioned with Nathan. But there's an underlying ickiness to the entire film, and not just the inherent "OMG, THE ROBOTS ARE LIKE PEOPLE" ickiness. There's an undercurrent of sexism that's unpalatable.
For example, every woman in this film is shown, at some point, in a full state of undress. That wouldn't be particularly noteworthy if the men were, too, but there's nary a dude's butt-cheek in sight.
That gets to deeper questions: Why is our eccentric billionaire a man? Why not a woman? And why not a woman who designs an AI? (It's worth noting that the AI is genderless, and Nathan has programmed it as female.) Is it so bizarre that a woman would invent artificial intelligence? What would she do with it?
Ex Machina isn't interested in those questions. Presumably, Garland isn't either. And like other films he's written—in particular Sunshine and 28 Days Later—Ex Machina takes two-thirds of a good idea and pisses away the last third with a devolution into violence that ignores the film's cosmic questions and gets down to the nitty-gritty of the basest of human emotions, namely the fight for survival.
Of course, the joke could be on me. Maybe Garland is suggesting that despite our best efforts, we're all just ids and lizard brains at our core, and all we want to do is fuck and, when we're cornered, escape.
Such is Ava's dilemma. She's aware that she's an AI. Before meeting Caleb, the only other living person she's met is Nathan. But there's something off-putting about the idea that her primary goal seems to be to escape.
At the same time, it's hard to blame her; it's entirely creepy that Nathan is the kind of person who has more or less built an AI (really, a series of AI robots) for sex. As the film wears on, it becomes clear that Nathan has a screw loose. He keeps talking about the limitless possibilities of AI, but he doesn't seem that interested in exploring them. He doesn't talk about leaving his isolated facility and expanding his AI program. It's more like a sex bunker, where he's slowly losing his mind.
And that leaves Ava with few possibilities. She realizes that she’s at Nathan’s mercy, and she chooses to do something about it. But how much more compelling would
have been if the AI were something greater than its human inventor? In the end, she really is just like us, and that’s disappointing.
Directed by Alex Garland
With Gleeson, Vikander, and Isaac
Regal Stadium 14