The marketing behind Alex Garland’s new film Ex Machina wants you to believe that this is a movie about two men who are performing a Turing Test on a machine, attempting to determine if it has intelligence that is indistinguishable from a human. What the marketing isn’t telling you is that Ex Machina ultimately asks a much more difficult question: what is it that makes up humanity’s indistinguishable intelligence?
The film begins with a young programmer named Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is summoned by the billionaire who owns the company at which he works. He wins a contest as one of the company’s top programmers and is flown to a remote compound where the reclusive Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, informs him that he will be the human component in The Turing Test.
The machine component is Ava, played via a mixture of practical and digital trickery by Alicia Vikander. She is a stunning female form with the face, hands and feet of a lifelike human. Her body, however, is clearly a machine. As Caleb and Ava begin to interact, both Caleb and the audience begin to have to reconcile the fact that for all intents and purposes, Ava seems human. She converses and reacts like a human. She exhibits humor and the ability to read situations like we’d expect from a human. But we can see that she’s clearly a machine. Thus begins the hunt for the greater answer that Nathan is after: what is it that makes us human?
The draw of Ex Machina is not just in this question, but also in the mystery presented in Nathan. Much of the film’s great intrigue comes from the fact that we are thrust alongside Caleb into this situation that Nathan has carefully constructed. It’s filled with clinical physical environments, unfathomable technology and an atmosphere of unease. The fact that Isaac delivers Nathan with such charisma and magnetism only heightens the sense of unease he creates in the situation. As Caleb’s interactions with Ava progress, the nature of the experiment becomes less and less clear.
Even the film’s complicated relationship with sexuality and gender roles is an extension of Nathan’s character. As I noted, Ava is a stunning female form. She’s built with the physique of an attractive young woman, further complicating Caleb’s task. This is something that may earn the film some criticism, but it makes sense. To understand the sexual politics of Ex Machina is to understand the man at its center. He’s a genius inventor whose intellect has likely made human interaction difficult. He’s chosen to seclude himself and focus on creating synthetic organisms and situations in which he controls the variables. He’s also a bit of a perv. As the Turing Turing test moves forward, Nathan’s interest in how sexuality and the emotions that come with it define our humanity are both easy to understand (considering he is the self appointed god-like figure lording over the situation) and very interesting on a human level.
All this is to say that Alex Garland has delivered a very thoughtful and complex take on artificial intelligence. Though the film makes several clever references to it, this is not a matter of a computer beating a human at chess. This is far more complicated and potentially muddled by the very human quality of suspicious intent.
This is where I fell in love with Ex Machina. It is a forward-looking story that asks as much about the human characters as it does its very alluring machine. It’s also an incredibly artful cinematic expression. The cinematography from Rob Hardy (Boy A) is masterful as it crawls along the sharp production design from Mark Digby (Rush, Dredd). The score from Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Dolman’s Ben Salisbury is a haunting electronic mood rollercoaster, constantly in a state of heightening the emotions we’re getting from the story. There’s even a bit of score that feels reminiscent of the tones from Close Encounters, furthering the idea that Caleb might just be encountering a new kind of life form. It’s so very clever, assuming it is intentional. Much of this movie’s beautiful experience is made in the details.
The atmosphere is electrifying, dripping with intensity. Similar credit, though, is owed to the actors. Even though the design, delivery and atmosphere of Ex Machina is carefully crafted to create an emotional result, it would be lost if the three actors involved weren’t operating at the top of their game. Isaac is enigmatic and unpredictable as Nathan (there’s an impromptu dance number that proves it). Gleeson is vulnerable and curious as Caleb, allowing the audience to ride along with him as he unravels Nathan’s mysteries. Vikander, saddled with the toughest work of the three (having to be expressive almost entirely with her face), brings Ava to life in a way that forces the audience to address the question of her humanity earnestly, even though we can see some of her moving parts.
Ex Machina is a profound, complex and incredibly well constructed experience. It asks some sharp questions about humanity, our relationship with technology and how sexuality fits into the equation. By the end of it all we’re left wondering about the real nature of Garland’s test. Is his about testing to see if Ava is human, or are we the ones being tested?
Because how do we define our own humanity, anyway?
The Upside: Sensational production design, cinematography and score compliment a thoughtful script and three wonderfully rich performances.
The Downside: The film has a complicated relationship with sexuality, particularly at the expense of its female characters, but not without good reason.
On the Side: This is Alex Garland’s directorial debut. His most prominent work previously was as writer of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine and as writer/producer on Dredd.