All I knew about Ex Machina was that there was a lot of buzz surrounding it after a few film festivals. Turns out that the buzz was very much warranted. (Minor spoilers follow)
Bluebook is a search engine created and run by a modern day mad-scientist / brogrammer named Nathan (Oscaar Isaac). Think of it like an amalgamation of Google, Facebook and anything else that collects data about people. Nathan invites his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his mountain country home/research facility to evaluate the AI of a new creation, the feminine android Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan intends for Caleb to perform a variant of a Turing test on Ava. Nathan wants to determine whether or not she can convince him that she’s a sentient life form despite him knowing that he’s looking at a robot.
Initially, Caleb is extactic about the opportunity to work with his boss and idol. He’s also very impressed with Ava and her interactions with him. However, he quickly become suspicious of Nathan and his erratic (often heavily intoxicated) behavior. Ava also starts to reveal a different side to herself when the two are alone. All of this leads Caleb to caution the true reason that Nathan selected him to be the one who conducted this test. Nathan reveals that the test does, in fact, have an ulterior motive that’s tailored specifically to Caleb.
Nathan cultivated Ava’s AI by leveraging the knowledge gathering algorithms that comprise BlueBook. He’s gone through several iterations of the AI and has moved it from one body to another. Inevitably, each iteration has reached the point where it tries to escape. As a result, it hates Nathan and views him both as a creator and a captor. Nathan has created this scenario on purpose and what he really wants to know is how far Ava will go to gain her freedom. Caleb was introduced into the situation in order to giver her a way out. This leaves Caleb, Ava and Nathan in a three way bluffing game where each of them are trying to use the others to get what they want.
Oscaar Isaac (Nathan) and Alicia Vikander (Ava) are outstanding in this movie. Both character have a lot of nuances that are played with differing levels of subtlety. On the one hand there’s Ava, who sometimes comes off as cold and robotic and other times very human. Even when she showing more human emotions they fluctuate across the spectrum. Sometimes being very severe and other times being childlike and everything in between. Still, it’s not until you find out what Ava’s true motive is that you can really go back and appreciate the complexity of what is actually being portrayed in her character. She’s a robot who’s trying to act like a person, but she’s doing so in a purposefully deceptive and manipulative way. She shows a lot of emotions (mostly negative ones) and seems to be driven by them but, still comes off as cold and calculating when her plans actually come to fruition.
By contrast, Nathan is all over the place when we meet him. He’s the kind of character that seems like they’re constantly on the verge of a breakthrough or a breakdown. When you first meet him, it’s clear that he’s eccentric and that he’s intelligent but as the viewer observes him through Caleb’s eyes, it becomes less clear how together he is. Finding out that he has a hidden agenda does fill in some of the blanks about his behavior but not all of them. There’s still the heavy drinking, borderline douchebag side of him that would rather have a two person dance party with his mute maid/sex toy than have a serious discussion. That, by the way, is one of the most gloriously random scenes that I have seen in a movie in a long time and it’s a great moment in this movie.
The movie itself had a couple of missteps for me, but not many. It goes out its way to cultivate a sense of uncertainty and discomfort the longer the movie goes. However, there are some points where the desire to create that sense supersedes the desire for things to continue to make sense. For example, there’s a super uncomfortable scene that takes place when Caleb starts to realize what’s really going on in the compound. We see him seemingly start to lose it and he begins cutting his wrists in the mirror before breaking it. The scene is really well done and does a great job of making me feel feelings. The problem is that, after I looked back on it I thought to myself, “wait, what was the point of him doing that”. I’m sure there was a point to it. Maybe it was an act to fool Nathan or maybe he was actually loosing it. It’s just not very clear what the reason for that behavior actually way. Still, it’s a minor thing in the grand scheme of the movie and the scene does stand out as being really good so I can’t complain about it too much.
Overall, I thought the movie was a great play on the idea of the human/AI interaction theme. It really plays up a lot of the subtleties of what defines human interaction by forcing the characters (and the user, by proxy) to focus on determining how human an machine could become. Setting up the events of the movie under the premise of an advanced Turing Test sets the stage for the exploration of the nature of the human behavior. However, the movie’s not looking into conversation and word choices. Instead it’s things like love, hatred, sexuality, self-interest, self-preservation, manipulation and acceptance that are actually being investigated. The entire thing is very nuanced and results in a movie that really does make you think about the themes and performances in the movie after you’ve left. It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to leave you feeling overjoyed or overtaxed, but you will leave feeling intellectually satiated.