In the offices of Bluebook, programmer Caleb has won the “golden ticket” of the staff lottery, to spend a week with the owner of the software firm, the world‘s most popular search engine. Flown by helicopter over the rugged, snowy mountain landscape of the estate he walks the last leg to the isolated research facility where he finds the reclusive genius Nathan who tells him this will be a working holiday, that Caleb will be the human component in the Turing test of the artificial intelligence which Nathan has created which he feels will see him at the epicentre of the next evolution of the human race.
Caleb expresses concern that as he’s been informed he is participating in a test that any result is compromised, but Nathan insists that he has moved past the traditional Turing parameters, wishing to observe the dynamic of how Caleb and his creation interact to see if Caleb feels the same at the end of the week, or whether it can pass the test, becoming “ex machina.”
And so begin the sessions between Caleb and Ava, bringing out more in each other as they start to know each other better, hesitant at first but developing rapidly as she turns his own questions back on him, while his are evenings spent with Nathan, drinking and discussing theory while they are waited on by the silent Kyoko. Accustomed to control, Nathan so casually takes his own superiority for granted he has no awareness of how wildly arrogant he is, eulogising his life as his biography will tell. Caleb is entranced by Ava, beautiful, delicate, exquisite, adaptive, actively seeking his approval and friendship, unlike Nathan who is pushy and prone to flashes of temper.
As Nathan’s god complex starts to exhibit itself, Caleb is warned by Ava that he is not all he seems, that he lies and should not be trusted. Caught between the gently inquisitive Ava and the manipulative Nathan, Caleb begins to consider Ava’s future should she, in his opinion, fail the Turing test, and seeing this she asks for his help to escape her creator and see the world.
Played by Oscar Isaac, known for the title role of Inside Llewyn Davis and soon to be seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens second teaser – reaction and X-Men: Apocalypse, Nathan is given the only real humour in the film, leavening what would otherwise be a boorish character constantly seeking affirmation of his genius, while former ballerina Alicia Vikander makes Ava a questing innocent. Caught between them is Harry Potter and Dredd’s Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, out of his depth and wary of the challenges and traps Nathan is laying.
All the lead performances are excellent, but Vikander, largely unknown outside her native Sweden but currently filming The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for Guy Ritchie, ,is a revelation as Ava. Her grace and poise as she moves and carries herself is poetic, her immersion reminding of Peter Weller’s preparation for RoboCop which involved dance and mime.
The god complex and the struggle between “creator” and “creation” are nothing new in science fiction, and given voice between Nathan and Caleb, the mental chess between them is well struck, pitched at the right level in their ideas and philosophies, though conscious of the fourth wall the questions are pulled back any time they might begin to challenge the audience. The power struggle between these two men is not so much over Ava but over the knowledge that she represents, and the dynamic each plays in this triangle is interwoven beautifully.
And that is the question: what does Ava represent, and through that, what does it mean to be human? Like Valerie 23 on the revived Outer Limits or more recently I, Robot, the argument is shown from the AI’s point of view as well as the human, asking why Ava exists, what her purpose is and whether she automatically has a right to continue that existence.
There is symbolism, from the masks on the wall to the Jackson Pollock painting which questions the will of the conscious and unconscious self, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Enola Gay playing in the background hinting at the possibility of catastrophe brought on by science, and playing on the paranoia of existence there are questions of what is done consciously and what is instinctual instinct, and how actions change when observed and when unobserved.
With the stark rugged Scandinavian beauty contrasting with the sleek beauty of Ava, enhanced by unobtrusive effects work, the aesthetics of this film are lo-fi, the quiet cinematography by Rob Hardy underplaying the artificiality of the environment.
The directorial debut of Alex Garland, writer of …28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, Ex Machina lacks the intensity of those works, the stilted pacing gives the audience too much time to predict events before they occur, a weakness exacerbated by the dramatic limitations of only having three principal characters, but his mastery of character, motivation and situation is undeniable and, like Nathan, each prototype he constructs will allow him to improve towards the inevitable perfection of his conception.