Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at BlueBook (think Google) is enjoying quite the heady week. Invited to BlueBoook founder Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) remote mountain home, he has been tasked with performing a Turing test on the boss’s pride and joy, Ava (Alicia Vikander), the latest iteration in ongoing experiments in artificial intelligence. But having now interacted several times with the comely robot with a woman’s beautiful face, voice and shapely, metallic body, he wants to know why Nathan made Ava humanoid at all. Artificial intelligence doesn’t need a body to exist, after all. With that question, Caleb gets to the one of the flaws in writer Alex Garland’s (The Beach, 28 Days Later) tense, creepy directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s the wrong question, though. The correct question is why would a man clearly interested in building himself a high-tech blow-up doll bother with granting it intelligence at all?
Isaac suppresses his considerable charm to play the poster child of a tech overlord divorced from humanity. Nathan’s chilly, impersonal home, filled with surveillance equipment that lets him watch everything that goes on inside his house, reflects the personality of a man who knows how to say the right things (social cues no doubt gleaned from his endless spying on BlueBook’s users) to appear that he’s just a regular guy who just happens to be a billionaire genius—“appear” being the operative word. As Caleb’s week with him wears on, it’s is increasingly clear that Nathan has little use for the world the rest of humanity inhabits and for all his assertions that it is great to converse with an actual human being for a change, his contempt for Caleb is never far from the service. It is no wonder that Caleb becomes confused as he tests Ava: In a wig and with clothes to mask her robotic parts, she seems far more human than his host.
Stephen Hawking is among those that have expressed reservations about where the development of AI might lead. That question simmers beneath Ex Machina’s sleek surface as Caleb and Ava interact during the “tests.” But despite stunning visual effects that transform Vikander into a mechanical being, the vibe is less sci-fi than neo-noir. Gleeson is brilliant as a man seemingly in way over his head. But is he really the classic chump he appears to be, and if so, who is playing him: Nathan, Ava or both? And why?
The whys are what is problematic about Ex Machina. Nathan’s explanation for why he wanted Caleb to visit and perform the Turing test rings hollow. And his experiments in artificial intelligence don’t compute not only in the form they take with his female models but also in the fact that a guy with this man’s ego is not going to risk not being the smartest being in the room.
Looking past that, the film is a nifty thriller. The remote location, the sterile house where the rooms can only be accessed by key cards (and not all cards work for all rooms), the wild card that is Ava, and the growing distrust between Nathan and Caleb keep the tension humming even in the quietest scenes. Garland delivers the goods with this stylish and suspenseful first feature. –Pam Grady