Alex Garland’s science fiction thriller Ex Machina may be one of those movies that would have been even better if the budget had been smaller.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company lottery to spend a week in the secluded and heavily secured home and research facility of his company’s boss, Nathan. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is the founder and creator of the world’s most used search engine Bluebook, in an obvious allusion to the power and influence of Google. The only other person in the facility is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a housemaid and assistant who does not speak.
It soon becomes clear that Caleb has been selected as part of an experiment, as Nathan makes him sign a detailed NDA and then introduces him to an android named Ava he has created, superbly played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.
In Ex Machina the Turing Test turns out to be a test of the humans rather than the machines.
Garland uses many well known genre setups to get the plot flowing: a mysterious and super powerful inventor at work in his hidden lair, and a Blade Runner-style Turing Test to decide whether a replicant can fool a human into believing in their pre-programmed emotions. These make for quick and instantly understood reference points to guide us through the story.
Then there are the pointed details we learn, like how Nathan harvested personal information from billions of Bluebook users, using their search queries as indicators of human thought, and hacked billions of cell phones for recordings of human expressions and body language – yet more allusions to Google and the search for the Singularity.
Transport the action to a distinctive and futurist location in Norway, which incidentally turns out to be a real hotel, and you have a great sci-fi set up and some great opportunities for futuristic art direction and well-worked sequences.
Robots aside, one of the pleasures of Ex Machina is that Caleb and Nathan spend quite a bit of time just talking to each other over a bottle or two of beer, wine or vodka while dropping references to Wittgenstein, Oppenheimer and Jackson Pollock. As a writer turned director Garland understands the value of words.
Words are cheap compared to CGI. This is where I think that Ava the robot might have been even more authentic, more believable, if less had been spent in the CGI allowing Vikander to do her job, until revealing more in the final sequences. As in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, this would have made more dramatic and visual impact.
In Ex Machina the Turing Test turns out to be a test of the humans rather than the machines. It’s the two human beings, Caleb and Nathan, that ultimately fail the test and the robots reveal more intelligence, more human intuition than their creators, with some obvious warnings for the future of humankind.
Film itself is an AI, a digital fiction created by humans to entertain and influence. Should humans fear all AI just because it’s artificial, or is it sometimes more credible, more ‘human’ than the bile of politicians or the machinations of bureaucracy?
One of the great scenes in Ex Machina is the site of Nathan, her creator, disco dancing with a robot. The future can’t come soon enough.