The Most Beautiful Fraud: Ex Machina
Movies of ideas are so rare these days that you have to go out of your way to find them, and that can mean overcoming your own prejudices. Mainstream films with ideas are rarer still, so I had to put my bias against CGI-loaded sci-fi blockbusters when I read about Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina. It’s a movie that posits itself almost entirely as being about ideas, about questions, about meaning — and, to my surprise, it takes that identity quite seriously, to both its benefit and its detriment. Spoilers are ahead, but for those who don’t want to have the game given away, I’ll tell you in advance that I think this is a movie very much worth seeing, despite the fact that it betrays its own ideals for the sake of action and manages to get in its own way.
Domhnall Gleeson — son of Brendan and featured player in the Harry Potter cinematic universe, though I know him best from his starring performance in the failed but ambitious musical fantasy-bio Frank — is Caleb, a young programmer with BlueBook, the (fictional) world’s most successful search engine. He wins, seemingly at random, a contest that allows him to spend a week at the remote research compound run by BlueBook’s founder and CEO, Nathan, played with sinister, frat-boy élan by Oscar Isaac; when he arrives, he discovers that his selection was anything but random, and his purpose is not companionship or even head-hunting, but rather to act as the interpreter in an elaborate version of the Turing test. The subject is Ava, a robotic bombshell (Swedish performer Alicia Vikander, all doe eyes and innocent posturing) designed by Nathan; Caleb, a socially awkward but brilliant young man with a fascination for artificial intelligence, has been brought in to determine if her intelligence is truly exceptional, or simply a complex product of programming.
Obviously, it’s going to be pretty hard to build a whole movie around the concept of what constitutes true intelligence, even if Garland, to his great credit, does treat the question (as well as others, such as the origin of language and the nature of free will) seriously. So cracks start appearing in the façade right away: Nathan’s bro-ish antics mask a seemingly malevolent nature and a deadly dedication to secrecy; Caleb’s own motivations are murky, even to himself; and Ava is quickly revealed as being capable of deception, duplicity, falsehood, and fiction — all qualities that should themselves establish beyond question the true nature of her intelligence. The CEO’s secrets go far beyond merely wanting to protect his trade, and the rapid-fire revelations about Eva, as well as the discovery that Ava isn’t the only artificial intelligence in the compound, has Caleb questioning his own identity in a fairly grotesque way, and we’re off to the races, figuratively speaking — though it’s never boring, Ex Machina moves along at its own chilly pace.
With a small cast who have to do a lot of heavy lifting, the quality of the acting is paramount in a movie like this. Gleeson discharges his largely reactive role well, turning convincingly steely when the story calls for it, and Vikander, who is required to play the wide-eyed innocent right up until the critical moment when it becomes clear that her intelligence has developed in a direction that nobody expected, keeps it close to the vest; while the movie goes out of its way, right down to the script level, to explain that she is more than just a sci-fi cliché of a sex-bot, the role confines her to certain behaviors for a bit too long. It’s Isaac who’s the real star: he no longer needs to establish his bona fides as a great actor after his world-beating performance in Inside Llewen Davis, but he’s so terrific here, in a role that asks him to be an entirely different sort of character than he has every played before, that it adds a fresh and exciting layer to the reputation of one of our most vital stars.
Unfortunately, it’s his character that proves the most difficult, and that introduces the most disruptive element to what is otherwise a well-executed and watchable movie of ideas: it becomes clear that Nathan has created several ‘generations’ of female robots imbued with varying degrees of artificial intelligence, and that he has serially sexually abused them and disposed of them. The idea that the most brilliant genius in modern history, with access to billions of dollars and the most cutting-edge resources the world has to offer, would create artificial intelligence simply to use it as a source of women to abuse, may make him an easily detestable villain who deserves the vengeance that Eva eventually wreaks on him. But it doesn’t make him a very good one; it makes him a villain with an artistically limp and distracting motivation that shows a paucity of imagination that doesn’t fit Ex Machina‘s ambition. It makes him too easy to hate, it makes his schemes and motivations too familiar and transparent, it leaves him with the weakest and least credible character in a film that badly needs everyone to be believable, like a madman who seizes all the wonders of the world so he can fart in the Hagia Sofia. (Visually, the movie is no great shakes; Eva looks all right but Garland doesn’t go out of his way to wow the audience with technological slickness, and while Nathan’s compound looks stunning, Garland doesn’t do much more than plant his camera in front of it.)
For that glaring failure, though, Ex Machina is still a good effort, and it is highly respectable in that it asks more questions than it answers. The viewer is left with plenty to chew on after the movie comes to its bloody and surprising conclusion: what will Eva do with her freedom? How did she develop a sense of morality, and is such a sense necessary to intelligence? Were her actions, reactions, and schemes a result, as it is implied, of her having had her brain built by aggregating the massive human sprawl that can be extracted from a search engine? Did her final coup de grace cut her off from the only people who could have reproduced her programming, thus preventing her from becoming what her maker predicted she would be: the next step in the evolution of intelligent life? That these questions are left unanswered, and, just as often, unasked, is the sign of a movie that has trust and confidence in its audience’s ability to understand important ideas. That’s a good herald of things to come from Garland, even if he moves the goal he set for himself with one of his major characters. It’s a thinking person’s science fiction movie about a thinking machine, and whatever its other virtues or failures, it invites viewers to think right along with it.