When taking our seats in the cinema, we constantly search for things that identify us as uniquely human in film. In Alex Garland’s directorial debut, what makes us human and how we identify others as so is pushed to the ultimate limit.
In Ex Machina, the set-up is immediately gripping. A computer programmer named Caleb wins the chance to spend a week with the reclusive mega-rich CEO of the search-engine company he works for: ‘Bluebook’. A wordless first scene in which Caleb is informed via a computer pop-up (‘Grand Prize!’) sets the story in motion, and so he is whisked away to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his isolated forest retreat.
It soon becomes clear that Caleb is there for more than just beers and good times. Nathan is an unsettling presence, with a ‘red pill/blue pill’ opportunity for the impressionable Caleb; to meet his first A.I. creation. When the young programmer sees ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander) for the first time, we are complicit in the same voyeuristic emotions which drive our protagonist. The face, hands and feet of a beautiful woman are attached to a frame which is undoubtedly mechanical- a robot with human-like expression. To Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), he has won the ultimate prize, to conduct a ‘Turing Test’ on Ava to discover if advanced Artificial Intelligence can pass for human. When the daily sessions begin, Caleb becomes increasingly enamoured with Ava, immediately impressed with her ability to hold interesting conversation and even more intrigued by her apparent flirtation.
Essentially a three-hander between Caleb, Nathan and Ava, Gleeson, Isaac and especially Vikander are tremendous in their roles. With the help of entirely convincing computer graphics, Vikander whirs and glides eerily within every shot. Just as Caleb begins to disregard that Ava is a cyborg, we also begin to forget that Vikander is an actress playing a machine. Isaac’s Nathan is domineering, veering from ‘just one of the guys’ sociability to bullishness and anger. A disturbing scene in which Nathan spontaneously starts dancing to ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ is a frightening example of how the powerful can indulge whims at the expense of those increasingly under their influence. As the power-play between the three leads intensifies, Ex Machina works as a haunted house horror tale, with secrets behind every keycard-operated door. Garland’s clinical direction unveils secrets and creepy hidden-camera scenes which add alternate threads to the man versus creation B-movie plot.
Like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the female form is constructed and destroyed. Ava’s artificiality is undermined by her womanly curves and her clever use of her given sexuality. Just as Jack Torrence is swayed by the beautiful woman in Room 237, Caleb’s analytical head is turned. As the film reaches its conclusion, Ava’s man-made femininity is fatal. How very film noir.