Ex Machina hinges on the Turing test, an idea which states that a machine has true artificial intelligence when its answers are reasonably similar to how a human would respond. In other words, once a machine’s conversational responses can fool a human, that machine has essentially achieved AI – what some would call a soul. The idea is also known as The Imitation Game and ideally it’s a double-blind experiment conducted in a closed scientific environment.
Writer-director Alex Garland plays with those rules fast and loose in the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, and in doing so creates a movie that’s in many ways the inverse of the Alan Turing biopic. Whereas the Oscar-baiting The Imitation Game was about a man who understood machines but not people, Ex Machina is about a man-made machine that is evolving to know people intimately. Featuring three lead performances that are just as nuanced as Benedict Cumberbatch’s, as well as a twisty plot that rewards close viewing, Ex Machina is a talkative, cerebral sci-fi film that isn’t afraid to ask big questions while staring into the abyss of human nature.
The movie sets up its characters very economically. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a gifted but isolated programmer working at the world’s largest and most successful search engine, the obvious Google stand-in Bluebook. In a wordless opening sequence we come to learn that Caleb’s won a company lottery, allowing him to visit Bluebook’s reclusive CEO for a week. In a scene that calls to mind the sweeping vistas of Isla Nubar in Jurassic Park, Caleb is whisked away by helicopter to the CEO’s sprawling estate (the helicopter traverses it for hours) and dropped off at a remote hideaway that’s a marvel of post-modern architecture amidst gorgeous mountain vistas.
Once there, Caleb’s outfitted with a pass card that allows him access to only certain parts of the building (which, according to the Chekhov’s Gun principle will obviously have importance) and he comes to face-to-face with Nathan, Bluebook’s mysterious and powerful CEO. As portrayed by Oscar Isaac, Nathan is a regular guy despite his genius, wealth, and vast power. He drinks beer and lifts weights, and in his spare time as a multi-billionaire he’s gone about creating what he believes is the world’s first true artificial intelligence.
That AI comes in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), an advanced android who’s “more human than human” as Tyrell of Blade Runner would say. Nathan reveals that he’s brought Caleb there to participate in a Turing test and determine if Ava – who’s kept in a glass room and not allowed outside – has AI, whether she has a soul. Nathan’s affable behaviour helps ease Caleb into a scarily expansive non-disclosure agreement as they set about making history (they hope), despite Caleb’s nagging concerns.
Title cards count the daily sessions of Caleb and Ava’s interactions, while also reminding viewers that this experiment has a week-long timeline. Ava’s dawning sense of self and Caleb’s growing fondness for her is underplayed nicely by both actors, as the scenes avoid clichés and instead create a sense of wonder, intellectual curiosity, and growing unease as Nathan watches it all on a bank of monitors from his control room.
If Caleb is the audience surrogate/neophyte in this situation and Ava is the blank slate onto which questions of human behaviour and motivation can be mapped, then Nathan is the God that oversees it all. His hubris has led him to create artificial life, but in a telling quote his intent may not be so pure. Nathan drinks a lot, which could mean self-loathing or possibly something else. Over a glass of whiskey during a debriefing session, Caleb wonders why Nathan has created Ava, quoting Robert Oppenheimer (the ‘father of the nuclear bomb’) with “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Nathan’s doesn’t bother to feign ignorance as he has in the past with Caleb, and a brief flicker of recognition flashes across his eyes.
Things devolve, as they must, but before Ex Machina reaches that point it proves riveting simply through conversation. Caleb speaks to Ava, and as she learns and grows she grills him right back. A growing sexual tension builds between the two, adding another layer of psychology to their sessions. Nathan looks on from above, like a disapproving father or an angry creator, and becomes increasingly coercive and booze-soaked. If Ava doesn’t have a biological imperative, can she fall in love? The all-seeing Nathan pries details from Caleb about their sessions, particularly during the times of power outages when the cameras go down.
While the exquisite tension leads towards something of a foregone conclusion, the journey there is spiked with intriguing questions and ideas that will last longer than the film’s runtime. The nature of gender, free will, experimentation, and even human extinction are all given voice in a brainy script ably carried by its cast. While it does suffer from some of the same (but less pronounced) 3rd-act issues as Sunshine, another feature written by Garland, Ex Machina nonetheless proves to be of a type with that Danny Boyle feature. They’re both unapologetically hard scif-fi movies with deep undercurrents of scientific curiosity and great casts, showing that Garland has continued to refine his bonafides in this genre. If the question is whether Ava is truly alive, then Ex Machina trusts the viewer to come up with that answer.
Ex Machina (2015)
Director: Alex Garland
Runtime: 108 minutes