Whether or not you’ll enjoy the latest science fiction thriller Ex Machina depends on how well you tolerate monotonous structures. If you can sit through slow burners like 2001: A Space Odyssey, chances are you be enthusiastic about this film.
This isn’t negative critical by the way, but plain fact. The film centers around three characters locked in a claustrophobic house built in the middle of nowhere. The owner of the complex is programming genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), head of Bluebook, a search engine company clearly modelled after Google. Nathan, beefed up from incessant weight lifting, has built the first ever robot that he thinks will pass the Turing test. To test out his invention, he invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his employees, to his home to interact with his newest robot Ava (Alicia Vikander).
There’s an uneasy tension between Nathan and Caleb. Nathan is a drunk and controlling, best exemplified by a sex slave he created to be his housekeeper. Caleb often carries a twinge of uneasiness, trying to control his disbelief with kind gestures. He constantly senses that Nathan is lying is to him. For example, during a hike up a mountain, Caleb asks Nathan why he lied about Caleb winning a contest to test out Ava. Nathan confesses he picked Caleb because of his programming skills. This soon turns out to be a lie as well.
Essentially, the film is divided by sessions with Ava. Caleb talks and flirts with this semitransparent cyborg during these sessions. In between sessions, Caleb talks with Nathan. The film goes on with this ping pong structure during the entire running time of the film.
But let’s be honest. Writer-director Alex Garland isn’t concerned with tradition thrills (though the film certainly has a rousing climax.) His film is about ideas and gender roles, forcing the audience to question Ava’s motives and ponder the nature of humanity. For instance, a question posed by the film is whether Ava has been predetermined to be attracted to Caleb or whether she has has developed the affection on her own.
Even more intriguing is the possibility that Eva has deliberately deceived Caleb into believing she’s attracted for the purpose of arriving at her own end. This role harkens back to the femme fatale from the noir genre, but is made far more complex because this is artificial intelligence. It’s not love that gives Ava her humanity, but rather her choice to pick her lover, regardless of her motives.
Perhaps the question is how to understand Ava. I watched in horror as she made her escape, feeling ambivalent about what I should take away from her. Here was the villain and the hero, using her own femininity to manipulate the kind spirited Caleb, all so she could gain her freedom. You rarely get female roles like this nowadays, and Vikander’s performance is right up to snuff for the task. So much is misled with her facial expressions. We see hope in her eyes, affection in her smile. I admit I was caught up in her act along with Caleb.
Like the best sci-fi, Ex Machina a slow paced a cerebral work of art. This might confuse those who have come to associate sci-fi with action and CGI porn. That’s a shame, because in an art form so devoid of films that actually require your brain to work, we finally have a worthy addition, along the lines of Under the Skin. If you can sit back and let your mind take in its leisurely pace, you’ll be well rewarded. Or you can see the latest Avengers flick.