In Alex Garland‘s directorial debut, Ex Machina, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at the world’s largest tech company, BlueBook — a fictional parallel to today’s big tech companies (Google, Facebook). Caleb wins a contest to spend a week with his brilliant, reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (a bearded Oscar Isaac) on his mountain estate. Half-hearted congratulations from his coworkers are shown, then it quickly cuts to him flying in a helicopter over expansive forests, mountaintops and mystical waterfall. We understand the scope of Nathan’s wealth when the pilot remarks that they’ve been flying over his estate for two hours. Caleb’s jaw hits the deck. The chopper drops him down in a field and flies away into the horizon like a bird of prey. With no building in sight, Smith “just follows the river” as he was told by the pilot.
Smith fumbles around on some riverbed on his path towards Bateman’s home. A modest-looking compound from the outside, blending with the foliage and built into the hillside. The doorknob acknowledges Smith’s presence and prints him a key card with a candid photo stamped on the front. One of a few well-placed comedic moments (see Oscar Isaac dance sequence). He walks inside, a beautiful home peppered with ultra modern furniture, curved walls, and collected paintings. Classical music plays in the background as Caleb pokes his nose in rooms around the house, trying to find anybody.
We meet Nathan outside on the deck, working off a hangover on his punching bag overlooking the river. His character, full of dudespeak and broisms, is a jab at the new generation of tech CEOs to surface in the Digital Age.
Can we get over this whole employer/employee thing?”
He presents himself as a pal and Smith’s friend. Just one of the dudes, man. A bearded, buzz-cutted, bare-footed, sparkling-water-loving boss of the future. But, we quickly learn that Nathan is much more complex than just a guy who would be willing to talk about chicks (and/or coding) over a box of Coors and some stogies. He’s a genius who’s lost touch with reality (demonstrated by his intense drinking habit) and toying with madness. Living alone in his research facility has caused for him to lose sight of morality in the traditional sense. A classic image of a scientist (Shelley’s Frankenstein comes to mind) teetering on the fence between madness and insanity. A man who believes he is a god, Nathan creates the world’s first AI and Caleb is on the ground floor of the greatest human achievement in the history of Man.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is Nathan’s creation. She’s a beautiful robot. If it wasn’t for her bare circuitry, it would hard to tell her apart from a woman on the street. She’s cute, curious, cunning and one half of Nathan’s Turing test. Through a series of sit down sessions, Caleb puts Ava’s “humanity” into question. Her sexuality is a problem for Caleb. Nathan explains there is no true consciousness without sexuality. This is when Caleb’s loyalty comes under scrutiny. Under constant surveillance, Ava triggers power failures that allow her to speak candidly with Caleb. She undermines Nathan’s authority, telling Caleb not to trust the billionaire inventor. Who to trust? Man or machine? Is she a machine? Is she even a “she”? Was she programmed by Nathan to flirt with Caleb? Is she using Caleb as a pawn in a grander scheme? Questions like these, viewed through Caleb’s eyes fuel a constant paranoia throughout the entire film. Never knowing the whole story, viewers are divided, just like Caleb, with their loyalty to each character.
If an AI passes the Turing test, when do robots gain rights? There’s no legislation. There’s no precedent. Viewers feel empathy towards Ava. She displays emotional pain, creativity, sexuality… all inherent human qualities. Empathy from the audience is present. Should her imprisonment in Nathan’s estate be allowed since she is only a bunch of wires, code, and plastic rubber fingers? Or, since she displays independent thought, constant learning through her environment, should she be treated as human? Garland prods at the inevitable questions of the future that lie within the field of robotics and AI.
The movie, shot on scene in Norway, is ripe with beautiful scenery. From the outside vegetation to the inside of Nathan’s home to Ava herself, Ex Machina is a treat for the eyes. However, it’s not the surface level aesthetics that keep viewers captivated. Paranoia. Manipulation. Literally, skeletons in the closet. Questions are asked without answers. Garland has started an open-ended dialogue concerning sexuality and it’s nature. When does madness precede genius? Are they necessary compatriots? Seen through the eyes of Caleb, everything is learned on a need-to-know basis for this film. Always guessing, questioning where loyalties lie. Man or machine?
Ex Machina opens April 24 in Vancouver, Toronto.
4 out of 5 stars