Earlier this year, Stephen Hawking renewed his warning that the continued development of artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” But the movies have tended to side with the robots, the (sometimes literally) scrappy underdogs whose desires for survival and autonomy feel even more fundamentally human than the rush from hugging a puppy.
Landing somewhere in between absolute terror and empathy is “Ex Machina,” a fairly simple parable about AI with several entertaining twists and turns along the way. Screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) makes a promising directorial debut with a gorgeously conceived, if lethargically paced, take on the Bluebeard fairy tale, generously peppered with both familiar AI-movie tropes and fresh discussions about what advantages and experiences artificially intelligent beings deserve.
The result is a chilly, yet engrossing drama, elevated beyond its four-people-locked-in-a-house framework by the eerie beauty of the production design and the thoughtful curiosity of Garland’s screenplay.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives at the remote mansion of his boss’s boss’s boss Nathan (Oscar Issac), a paranoid tech prodigy, whose mannered attempt to be just one of the guys fails to put his shocked-and-awed underling at ease. Caleb has been chosen at random, Nathan insists, to test out “the greatest scientific discovery in the history of man.” That linchpin of humanity turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander), a glowing, metal-plated, semi-hollow automaton with the face of an angel. She’s still a bit stiff, sure, but Caleb’s the only person she’s ever interacted with other than her inventor, and her perfect posture is probably an improvement on the human spine anyway.
Despite Nathan’s excitement about what Ava represents, he treats her with cruel indifference. She, in turn, seems to loathe her maker. Aware that she’s monitored by Nathan’s cameras all day long, Ava arranges to steal a few moments here and there between polite chitchat with Caleb about their favorite colors and childhood memories to warn the lowly programmer not to trust his employer. Ava’s questions about the beta versions of herself – whose sculpted, empty faces line the walls of Nathan’s cavernous, highly secured house – lead Caleb to suspect that his new robotic acquaintance might be headed for the recycle bin soon.
The more time he spends with Ava – who begins to express romantic feelings for Caleb – the more he becomes convinced that he needs to rescue her from her inventor, especially after discovering Nathan’s monstrous collection of sexually fetishized robot cadavers. Ratcheting up the ick-factor, the inventor lets Caleb know that Ava’s capable of sex – why shouldn’t she get to feel physical pleasure just because she’s made of silicon and wires? – but it soon turns out that there’s an ominous reason why the lowly programmer finds himself mutually smitten with the robot.
The plot takes a few more narrative bends after that, some of them surprising, but none of them affecting. The rest of the film coasts on visual flair, which flirts with dismemberment porn (though I confess to being more squeamish than perhaps the average viewer when it comes to mutilated bodies).
More egregiously, if most AI movies fall into the trap of overly sentimentalizing nonhuman characters, then “Ex Machina” goes too far in the other direction, doing too little to make Ava (and the film’s other female character, Nathan’s racial caricature of a live-in maid, played by Sonoya Mizuno) a person/thing worth caring about. If the robots of the future are this dull, Hawking might have nothing to worry about.
Watch the trailer below.