As that other sci-fi movie featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac looms (ahem, Star Wars VII), there’s a small sci-fi suspense film pitting the two actors together over a robotic femme fatal (Alicia Vikander) coming out in wide release this Friday. Ex Machina, the first film directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind such “re-inventive” sci-fi/suspense films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is a compellingly entertaining film featuring a handful of characters stuck together inside a big house in the woods. But it’s also a little more than that.
In a wordless prologue, we watch Gleeson’s character, Caleb, from behind a computer screen, celebrating after he wins some major prize via email. There’s sharing via text, social media and almost instantaneous responses of “congratulations!” and “take me!!” Meanwhile, people gather around his cubicle, as the news of his win spreads. The delay of the “real world” over the virtual world makes for a funny dig at the relevance of one above the other. But it is also an important set-up in establishing an encounter with the virtual as substitute for the real thing, for this film is all about a man’s idea of harnessing feminine sexuality in an ideal, constructed surrogate for the real thing … and paying the price for it.
It turns out Caleb has been invited by his boss (Isaac) to his mansion in the woods for a week-long stay where he will meet Nathan’s latest high-tech invention: a sexy-looking robot called Ava. Caleb is a skinny, awkward nebbish, simply geeking over the fact that he gets to meet the reclusive founder/inventor of a computer system called Bluebook for which Caleb works as an office drone. After a two hour-plus helicopter ride over his boss’ property, he is dropped off in a clearing and told to follow a river, which will lead him to the house. It’s a nice surreal and ominous touch with echoes of no escape. After letting himself in with an automatic ID card maker, Caleb finds Nathan hitting a punching bag shirtless. Nathan explains he is detoxing a hangover. Nathan’s all smiles and “bros” over Caleb, trying to bring him down to earth from his celebrity fixation over their meeting. It’s as if an Apple “genius” had a chance to live with Steve Jobs for a week.
Of course, no meeting like this ever leads to anything idyllic. Nathan is soon revealed as a mad scientist frustrated by his work in perfecting the ideal robot who happens to have the body of a young woman. Nathan takes to drink every night and reveals a cynical sense of humor that covers up a misanthropic personality on the verge on giving up on himself. Caleb is almost the opposite. Not only can’t he understand Nathan’s sense of humor, but he’s too excited by the honor of the invitation to notice Nathan’s unstable character. Nathan — and soon even Ava — manipulate this poor milquetoast throughout the movie. Though Caleb thinks he is rather smart about AI, mistakenly believing he’s figured out his role as a collaborator with Nathan to apply the Turing Test to Ava, he’s actually always one step behind. After all, Nathan hand-selected Caleb based on his profile culled from his Internet searches, including his online “porn profile” to interact with Ava — another revelation Caleb comes to a bit too late.
There’s a desperation to both of these men, who are both human and therefore terribly flawed, blinded by an arrogance that never allows them to know just how deep in shit they are getting into. Caleb is a geeky, lonely male who tries to keep his cool by spewing his highfalutin knowledge of theory. At Nathan’s prodding for how he “feels” about Ava, he drops the fancy talk to tell him, “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”
Nathan is a bit more interesting, corrupted by wealth, his God complex and his libido. Sexually, his creation becomes his downfall, as he mistakenly thinks he has ownership of its being. There’s a terrific reveal that alludes to one of the greatest misogynists in literature: Bluebeard. Yet, Nathan still garners the viewer’s sympathy, which is a feat for a film villain, and Isaac walks that line supremely. Though he has a dryly humorous dance scene with one his robots, there is also pathos in it. He’s a sad drunk who echoes Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”
It’s his fate that is the most interesting at the end. Too bad, Garland cannot handle the climactic finale as well as it deserves. Some may confuse it for humor or even justice. Resolution has always been a problem for Garland’s scripts, and Ex Machina does not fix this. But the concept of Ex Machina remains interesting. The notion of AI follows the clichés we know from similar films. Ava does arrive at that existential conundrum of computers that have become self-aware: “Don’t dismantle me!” But that’s not what this film is about (for truly mystical concerns of AI, check out Computer Chess [Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber]). Ex Machina is about man projecting ideals in the worst kind of way. Ava has curves but nothing organic below the surface save for obscure gears and glowing wires. She’s a pretty face with a stilted control of English. There’s an element of clear dehumanization that requires someone like Caleb and Nathan to project an ideal on. When she does act out, as teased in the trailer below, there is no sense of empathy. The notion of sexuality is but a tool for Ava to harness in order to gain an upper-hand over the men. To anthropomorphize this thing would be a mistake. Ex Machina is ultimately the most weirdly feminist film by a man, focusing on the shortcoming of man’s perception of women, and for that, Garland deserves kudos.
Ex Machina runs 110 minutes and is rated R (Violence, cussing and naked lady parts). It opens this Friday in most every theater in the U.S. A24 hosted a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.