Ex Machina' explores the soul of a new machine

Ideas of modern technology inform Alex Garland's smart sci-fi thriller

Friday April 17, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Before I saw Ex Machina, I jokingly wondered if the moody sci-fi thriller was based on those "sexy robot" ads from Svedka vodka. Then I saw the movie, and realized that the female android has a design fairly similar to the vodka-bot, right down to the butt (I normally wouldn't mention it, but really, you can't not notice it). Writer-director Alex Garland even makes vodka a minor plot point in the movie. Is this just a coincidence, or is Ex Machina messing with us?

It wouldn't be the only way that Ex Machina toys with viewer sympathies and expectations. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who finds himself manipulated, tested, and put under every possible kind of pressure. A young coder at huge search engine company called BlueBook, Caleb wins the office lottery to spend week with BlueBook's reclusive founder Nathan, (Oscar Isaac) at his remote, high-tech, not-at-all-sinister estate.

Nathan lives in a partially underground "smart house" with omnipresent security cameras and key card locks. He tells Caleb that he just wants them to pal around for the week, and then has his employee sign an arcane nondisclosure agreement. While the technology and corporate procedures seems authentic early on, the setting could be the 21st-century equivalent of a Gothic castle.

The real reason Nathan wanted a visitor was to have an outside party test his prototype for artificial intelligence, to see if it — or maybe "she" is more accurate — proves convincingly human. Nathan and Caleb discuss the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, and the dynamics also echo the Voight-Kampff questions from Blade Runner.

With Alicia Vikander's beautiful face, "Ava" shows her lack of humanity through transparent arms, legs, and torso that reveal metal armatures beneath. Placidly answering Caleb's questions, Ava at first seems like iPhone's Siri with a body, but she proves increasingly perceptive and empathetic, and can read Caleb's expressions with the exactitude of a lie detector. She also begins to encourage Caleb to keep secrets from Nathan.

Ava soon seems like the most normal presence in the situation, as the seething, hard-drinking Nathan has a pervy relationship with a silent servant (Sonoya Mizuno). Caleb realizes that nothing can be taken at face value, and incidents like the intermittent power failures that put the building on lockdown may not be as random as Nathan claims.

Garland's previous scripts, such as Sunshine, Dredd, and 28 Days Later ..., brought more than usual intelligence to sci-fi action scenarios. He crafts Ex Machina as a cat and mouse game, but just when viewers believe we're ahead of the characters, we learn they're smarter than we'd thought.

The story has echoes of the forbidden room from the Bluebeard legend, and goes to a place with extremely dark implications about male sexuality. Ex Machina's conclusions prove highly pertinent to contemporary online arguments about feminism and misogyny. An engrossing suspense film, Ex Machina chews on some fresh ideas about modern technology, such as the notion that search engines can hold mirrors up to human behavior.

Gleeson and Vikander give strong performances, but Isaac, unrecognizable with his shaved head, thick beard, and glasses, makes the most magnetic presence. With his sphinxlike expression and faux-friendly, vaguely bullying demeanor, he makes Nathan seem powerful, unpredictable, and capable of anything. You'd never let your guard down around him, no matter how much he tries to act like a "bro." The character evokes the old F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "The rich are different from you and me."

And that goes double for androids. (4 out of 5 stars)

More By This Writer

Short Subjectives April 15 2009 Article

Wednesday April 15, 2009 04:00 am EDT

Cover Story: I changed my sex. Now what? Article

Scott Turner Schofield's rapid transit to a new identity
Wednesday March 15, 2006 12:04 am EST

Cover Story: Tilting at windmills Article

The current state of miniature golf
Wednesday May 17, 2006 12:04 am EDT

Cover Story: Curt Holman's festival favorites Article

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Pope Dreams, War and Truth
Wednesday June 7, 2006 12:04 am EDT

Cover Story: This goes to 11 Article

A dozen (or thereabouts) reasons to fall in love with theater
Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:04 am EDT
Search for more by Curt Holman