Sci-fi gets smart in literate robotic thriller ‘Ex Machina’
Screenwriter Alex Garland has written some of the more interesting sci-fi scripts of the last few years—the bio zombie plague thriller 28 Days Later, for one, and Sunshine, about a group of astronauts on a mission to jump-start the dying sun in time to save the earth. Now Garland moves into the director’s chair with his new film Ex Machina. It’s a simmering chamber piece for three, with elegant echoes of Frankenstein and Blade Runner, yet very much rooted in both the technology and the prevailing mindset of today.
The dialogue-free prologue sets up the premise in swift, deft strokes. Caleb (appealing naif Domhnall Gleeson), an anonymous programmer at a gigantic Internet search engine company, receives an email at work one day telling him he’s won a company-sponsored contest. The prize is to spend a week with the company’s elusive, tech-genius founder at his private, forested retreat in the mountains, accessible only by helicopter, and hours away from any other human habitation. (All of this is conveyed via text messages and computer screens, until the info goes viral, and Caleb’s co-workers come spilling into his cubicle to congratulate him.)
After hours in the air, Caleb is finally set down seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A modest wooden fence is just visible amid the lush greenery, with a blinking access box and a disembodied voice instructing him to enter. Thus, he descends into the lavish, largely subterranean compound of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Mercurial, no-nonsense, hard-drinking Nathan seems eager to dissolve the barriers between employer and employee and chum up to Caleb. (“We’re just a couple of guys having a beer.”) And, of course, Caleb is flattered, and even more so when Nathan reveals the purpose of their time together.
Nathan needs another brainy guy to help with his latest project, a top secret experiment in artificial intelligence (A.I.). He schedules Caleb for daily test sessions with his new robotic creation, called Ava, to help determine if the machine has developed a consciousness of its own.
But while much of her body is clear Lucite, revealing the wires and circuitry within (think of the ’60s kids toy, Mr. Machine), Ava has the face and form of a seductive young woman. As played by Alicia Vikander (abetted by some very sophisticated CGI imagery), she disarms Caleb with her innocence and curiosity. At their second session, she starts asking him questions. Then, during one of the seemingly random power outages when the place is locked down for a few minutes until surveillance equipment goes back online, Ava tells Caleb, “Nathan is not your friend.”
Here the game of cat-and-mouse begins, although Garland is cagey about which of this three players is which. Any one of them might be predator or prey, at any given time—or not. The big-screen monitor in Caleb’s room gets only one channel—Ava’s private apartment. Nathan mentions that Ava has the capacity for sexual function and pleasure. Caleb wonders if Ava has been programmed to flirt with him. Ava poignantly asks Caleb if she’ll be “switched off” if she fails to pass their test. By the time Caleb discovers a Bluebeard-like cache of prototypes, the stakes have changed dramatically, although there’s a bit too much of the camera lingering over random female body parts in this scene than is absolutely necessary.
Garland has fun viewing the mad-scientist motif through the template of modern technology. Nathan says he gave Ava speech and human awareness by hooking her up to the Internet. (A search engine, he says, is “a map to how (not what) people are thinking.”) The question of whether creating life—even an imitation of life, in robotic form—qualifies Nathan as a god is debated throughout. And the degree to which the two men—both “advanced programmers”—can (or cannot) program the situation keeps viewers on their toes.
In our era of ever more sophisticated mechanical devices, the line between organic consciousness and programming itself becomes obscure. Garland invites us to consider the nature of humanity, at its best and worst, in this smart, literate thriller.
*** (out of four)
With Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Written and directed by Alex Garland. An A24 release. Rated R. 110 minutes. PHOTO: Alicia Vikander plays the robot creation ‘Ava’ in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller ‘Ex Machina.’