Depictions of highly advanced artificial intelligence in science-fiction usually fall into two extremes: Either they are benign and lovable, like David in A.I. and Wall-E, or evil, ruthless killing machines, like the many models of the T-line across the entire Terminator franchise. The essential element that decides whether or not these characters will be good or evil is their programming. Yet one of the most important aspects of what makes us human is our ability to exercise our free will, and if any advanced AI is to attain true consciousness, it would need to make its own path in life like the rest of us.
What sets Ava (Alicia Vikander) apart from her cinematic counterparts is the promise of ambiguity. She’s a humanoid AI prototype created by eccentric billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in a top-secret underground facility that looks like a modern furniture catalogue threw up on a highly advanced version of The Clapper. She acts human in every possible way, but can she display true human behavior, guided by her consciousness and her desire to survive? Can she manipulate others; can she cheat and lie to get what she wants?
Nathan wants to find out if Ava has consciousness similar to a human being, so he creates a lottery to have one of the employees from his multi-billion dollar search engine empire to come to his bunker for a week and test her. The lucky winner is Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a lonely coder with a tragic past. Nathan’s intention is to put Caleb and Ava through an advanced version of the Turing Test, which was designed to see if a person could recognize the presence of AI. Caleb already knows that Ava is AI, but will he eventually interact with her the way he does with a human being, will he be won over by her charm and, if it comes down to it, is he even capable of falling in love with her?
In many ways, writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a hard sci-fi near-masterpiece, represents the darker side of Spike Jonze’s Her. Both films deal with a loner who falls in love with AI in a near future setting. Yet even though there was sufficient conflict in the relationship between Samantha and Theodore in Her, none of it was about the possibility that Samantha could lie to or manipulate Theodore to achieve her own goals. After a couple of sessions between Ava and Caleb, always held with a thick glass between them, perhaps as part of Nathan’s plan of accentuating Caleb’s longing for Ava, Caleb becomes more and more smitten with Ava while also trying to decide whether or not she has true human consciousness.
Things become much more complicated as Nathan twists Ava’s words against her while trying to instigate a tangible conflict in Caleb’s mind. Meanwhile, Ava pleads to Caleb that nothing’s as it seems, and that Nathan is much more sinister than the goofy and eccentric genius millionaire he claims to be. As the week progresses, Caleb’s increasing paranoia forces him to question everything, including his own existence.
By having his film take place almost entirely in the bunker and almost entirely between the three leads, Garland cleverly intensifies the claustrophobia and paranoia that he infuses on the audience. If a tense scene showing Caleb finally losing his mind and deciding to figure out if he himself is AI existed in a film that intercut between the bunker and the rest of the world, the credibility of the character’s odd decision would have been shut. But Garland stretches the limits of reality and artificiality in his story so meticulously, that not only do we understand Caleb’s insane decision, but we could imagine ourselves coming to the same conclusions if we were in his shoes.
Like the best examples of hard science-fiction, Ex Machina works both as a thriller with a considerable amount of external conflict, getting the audience to guess its many twists as it rolls along in a perfect pace for the genre, and as a deft study on the meaning of consciousness, as well as whether or not it would be such a great idea to model AI after humans. The cold and indifferent production design of the bunker perfectly intensifies Caleb’s gradual disillusionment in his role as the human side of the test. The fully automated bunker that focuses only on the bare essentials of existence is set up in a way that almost telegraphs that all AI will eventually lose any need for us.
In his first film, Garland shows the kind of assured and focused direction that shows promise for a long and impressive career as a writer-director. The grounded performances from Gleeson and Vikander are essential in balancing out the manic-depressive energy of Isaac, who, in one glorious scene, shows the audiences that he has some awesome dancing moves.