Immediately we know that Ex Machina‘s main character, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is being watched. Because of this, and maybe somewhat because of the horror previews I saw just before, I was tense through all 108 minutes of Alex Garland’s film. How could something not go wrong? Caleb works as a programmer for Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine, and wins a contest to visit the home of its founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), for one week. Nathan lives in what appears to be the middle of a North Face ad– surrounded by nature in a massive smart home that also serves as his “research facility.” Since creating Bluebook at the age of 13, Nathan has had plenty of time to grow his ego and work on his next project, creating the world’s first successful artificial intelligence (AI).
Caleb is here not for a fun vacation with the bossman, but to perform the Turing Test on Nathan’s AI, who he’s made to look like Natalie Portman (okay not actually) and named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander, more below). The Turing Test, if passed, proves that a machine is indistinguishable from a human, so Caleb begins testing Ava very practically– what is your name, can’t you choose what to draw, have you ever left here? Nathan is watching each of the seven sessions Caleb has with Ava, and we’re made to wonder who’s actually speaking with Caleb. The sessions become more and more human, on both sides (let’s face it, Caleb is a bit robotic too), and sexuality comes into question. Why would Nathan make a gendered AI? Does this matter to the plot? (Absolutely.)
The performances are great– Isaac walks the psychopath tightrope incredibly, making jokes that some were terrified by and others laughed at hysterically (for the record, I was the former). I’ve gushed over Gleeson on this site before so I’ll spare you this time, but an actor I’d never watched before and want to gush over now is Vikander. Her Ava is nearly flawless, so much so that you forget you’re not watching a robot programmed to act this way. The score can become a little much (we get it, she’s getting on an elevator!) and a lot of the script seems to underestimate the audience (twists and turns can appear in a straight line to anyone paying attention), but Machina asks a lot of important, fascinating questions while being very pretty. What are the consequences of creating something so lifelike? How has the internet changed society and surveillance? Is the reflection motif still engaging after an hour and a half? For a great conversation starter, see Ex Machina.