“Ex Machina” is a high tech thriller that by and large ignores the tech to get down to the nitty gritty. Director and screenwriter Alex Garland (who previously scripted “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”) places the story firmly in the world of artificial intelligence and then showcases the humanity (or lack thereof) of his characters, both flesh-and-blood and robotic.
When we first meet Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) he is a young, talented programmer at Bluebox, the world’s leading search engine. He is also the winner of a company wide contest to spend a week with Bluebook’s reclusive CEO, Nathan “The Mozart of Code” Bateman (Oscar Isaac). He arrives at Bateman’s remote complex to discover he is to take part in a Turing Test (named for “The Imitation Game’s” subject Alan Turing) to evaluate the ability of an automaton named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to show intelligent behaviour equal to, or undifferentiated from, that of a human being. Over seven sessions Caleb forms a deep connection with Ava as his relationship with alpha-male Nathan crumbles. In the end the young man must undergoes the greatest test of all—figuring out who to trust, man or machine.
With the cool austerity of Stanley Kubrick director Garland creates the antiseptic world of Bateman’s lair. Clinical and precise, it’s a stark backdrop for a sci fi story that is more concerned with ideas than special effects. It’s a “Frankenstein” story that is, as Bateman says, not interested in what people are thinking, but how people think.
And it will make you think. The Turing Test premise is an excuse to hang a thriller on, one that uses Ava’s artificial intelligence to have a look at how people can be manipulated with the bat of an eye or tilt of a head. Coupled with that it raises real issues regarding internet security—how much should your internet provider really know about your habits, likes and dislikes?—and surveillance.
I have to be deliberately sketchy with the plot details so as not to spoil the climax, but it’s a story that will stimulate conversation but does not ignoring the emotional elements of the Caleb’s tale.
Isaac once again proves to be a quiet but potent on-screen force as Bateman, always the smartest guy in the room, but one lacking the interpersonal skills to truly connect with people. Gleeson (who will next be seen alongside Isaac in “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”) is sympathetic and determined but it is Vikander who really impresses. She’s equal parts warmth and chilly precision as a robot who wants more than to be a machine.
“Ex Machina” is being presented as sci fi, but it really is a human drama; a human drama where the main character has a fibre optic nervous system.