Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)
“Ex Machina” dramatizes a question that has plagued mankind for decades: What should we fear more—artificial intelligence or women?
Alex Garland’s film is actually smart and moody. It pulses and throbs. It’s a mystery. The biggest mystery is less about A.I., or women, than what the Great Man is doing with the kid.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young, mid-level programmer for the search engine Blue Book, which dominates the near-future market the way Google does the present. As the movie opens, he’s informed, via text, that he won first prize in a contest to meet the Great Man, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who founded the company after writing the Blue Book code at the age of 13. “When do we get to his estate?” Caleb shouts at the helicopter pilot as they fly over what looks like Greenland. The pilot chuckles. “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours!” the pilot shouts back. Eventually they land in what looks like primordial green with no building in sight. But that’s as far as the pilot is allowed. No further. The Great Man is Howard Hughes for the digital set.
Nathan’s an odd one but shouldn’t he be odder? Say, more spooked by another human presence? He lives alone in this vastness yet comes across as just another asshole CEO. He’s dismissive in greeting (pounding the heavy bag when Caleb first arrives), then regular-guy in conversation (beer talk and “man” endearments).
But we know he’s got a game. Even after he says his game, we know he’s got a different game.
He says he brought Caleb there for a Turing test. He’s created a robot in the form of a beautiful woman—named, Biblically, Ava (Alicia Vikander)—and he wants to see if Caleb can tell if she’s a machine. Except, since she’s unfinished, Caleb can see she’s a machine. Initially Caleb is confused by this. Then he’s confused by Ava. Then he begins to fall in love with her. Her big-eyed vulnerability helps. During their talks, the power generator goes out, meaning Nathan can’t monitor the two of them—or so Ava says—and she uses this alone time to tell Caleb not to trust Nathan. So is Ava causing the power to go out to steal these moments with Caleb? To what end? Or is Nathan responsible for the outages so he can better spy on them? Are Ava and Nathan enemies (with Caleb caught in the middle), or are they in cahoots (with Caleb being used)?
Actually, we know Caleb is being used. The question is: In what way is Caleb being used? And is he smart enough to figure it out?
He thinks he’s smart anyway. He’s told he won the contest because his coding is so good, and for a time he believes this. He even deigns to school Nathan. At one point, he says, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” then adds, pedantically: J. Robert Oppenheimer/atom bomb. Nathan in effect shushes him. It also takes Caleb a while to figure out what is obvious to us: that the fourth presence in the house, a silent servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), is also A.I.
It’s a smart movie, referencing Turing, Wittgenstein, Jackson Pollock. Ava’s A.I. turns out to be a compendium of the world’s online searches—both what we search and how we search—which is also pretty smart. Unfortunately, there’s only so many answers to the main mystery. What is Nathan’s goal? For most of the movie, I assumed Caleb won the contest (which wasn’t a contest) to see if a man could fall in love with a machine. Nope. Nathan wants to see whether the machine can manipulate the man. Which it does. Better than Nathan anticipates.
I like how easily the knife goes into Nathan’s body—like he’s made of butter. I like how indomitable Ava is in spirit yet how vulnerable in form. (Nathan smashes her arm like it’s an old PC; the Terminator she’s not.) I also like the irony of the ending. Nathan tries to kill Ava but she kills him instead. Caleb tries to free Ava and she traps him instead. There’s no morality to it, just survival. She leaves Caleb behind and goes out into the world—Big Data as a small woman. It’s that rare movie that actually calls for a sequel.
It’s also that rare movie that is open to many interpretations. Is it about Big Data, and how our search results will kill us in the end? Is the metaphor Frankenstein? God? Ava, after all, removes her creator, Nathan, from the equation, as Garland removed “Deus” from the title. Me, I kept thinking of old movie moguls. These guys had vast power, and lived on vast estates, where they created beautiful women with which to manipulate the rest of us. “Ex Machina” is steeped in near-future techi-ness, but you could argue it’s really a movie about old Hollywood.