The first impression you get is that of confidence: A director uncommonly confident in his use of bold images to jumpstart a story. Ex Machina is the first feature film directed by Alex Garland, and it’s a statement of purpose that follows gracefully upon the modus operandi he’s set for himself as a screenwriter and producer. It’s not that he doesn’t trust the machines created by man; indeed, that sort of I, Robot cynicism becomes more and more passe as we become more and more friendly with our devices, for better or for worse. Rather, Garland doesn’t trust humans to deal with each other. In his world, people treat one another like machines–testing them, extracting their useful resources and then disposing of them. If the robots end up acting that way too, it’s no wonder. We made them in our image.
Ex Machina begins with a dialogue-less sequence that propels us both into the story and into Garland’s distorted universe. A young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) learns via email that he’s won some sort of contest. As he peers into his monitor and texts everyone he knows, his face is reflected in his devices. The devices are watching him–but we must always remember that those devices are created and powered and monitored by people. It’s the mysterious, clandestine nature of the people who know how to manipulate these devices that concerns Garland. When we’re being helicoptered to our programmer’s grand prize–a weeklong Turing test with an eccentric billionaire software developer and his pet robot project–we learn that our billionaire’s estate is a lush, uninhabited wilderness the size of a small state. Alone he sits in his turbo-stylish mansion, drinking too much and creating robot companions. Although his latest project isn’t so much a companion as a captive. And it isn’t so much a robot as a convincing humanoid female.
The billionaire, Nathan, is played by Oscar Isaac as a composite douchebag-creep-evil genius. He tries to play the cool guy with our programmer, Caleb, but he comes on way too strong. He’s that guy who’s desperately in need of friends but who doesn’t realize that his superior, cool-guy put-on is impossible to reckon with. Or maybe he’s just too rich and brilliant to care. He tries to make Caleb comfortable with beer and conversation, acting like he just wants to be a regular guy, but in the absence of anything non-dickish to say, his words always revert back to his work. Wanna see something cool? Check out this robot I invented. Her name is Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a striking miracle of CGI, a fashion magazine face with a body of plexiglass and circuitry. Our films have been saturated with visual effects so thoroughly and for so long that we often feel unable to be impressed by anything anymore. It’s to Garland’s credit that he’s able to still find the wonder in computer-generated imagery. Ava is so human–in every way but the obvious–that we fall in love not only with her personality but with her mechanized body. She isn’t treated as a nifty graphic, to be manipulated and flaunted for distracting visual effect, but as a work of art, to be appreciated along with the many gorgeously-exposed shots in Garland’s film. Garland, unlike many of his big-market colleagues, sees sleek, futuristic imagery not as an opportunity for “look what I can do” gimmickry, but as a gateway to a more immersive visual experience. His shots are like sips of a good wine: We’re often titillated, but also intrigued and, in the early scenes, calmed. He rediscovers the beauty in our conservative, geometric electronics.
Caleb’s interviews with Ava quickly become mini-dates, and it’s easy to see why: he’s the first person Ava’s seen who isn’t her billionaire overlord. Their sessions are monitored by Nathan, but when the power mysteriously goes out, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not to be trusted. We don’t know why, exactly; Nathan is certainly a weirdo and an alcoholic and a dickhead to boot, but what’s he doing that’s really wrong? He’s keeping Ava locked up in a single room, but she is a robot after all. Her desire for freedom is merely a result of the human capabilities with which she was programmed by Nathan. Here we have the biblical creation tale coupled with modern patriarchy: The man, fancying himself a god, creates the woman for the sake of keeping her as his property.
The added twist here is that Caleb, having fallen in love with Ava, casts himself as her Knight in Shining Armor–a bastion of machismo as classic and oppressive as Nathan’s evil captor. During one of Nathan’s drunken catnaps, Caleb hatches a plan to get Ava out of the house and to freedom. Ava badly wants to see the outside and to escape from Nathan’s dominion, but while Caleb certainly feels for her, that’s not why he’s helping her out. The plan is for Ava with escape with Caleb, so that he can feel the pride of having saved her; so that he can accompany her back to civilization; so that he can keep her. The second half of Ex Machina juggles the various implications of the warped love triangle. Does Caleb accept Ava’s humanity so deeply that he’s willing to risk his own ass to get her to safety? Or does her safety merely offer an easier opportunity for Caleb to possess her? Ava’s status as a non-human grants Caleb an automatic feeling of superiority over her, so that he can pretend to know what’s best for her. Is he really so different from Nathan?
Garland’s finest achievement may be his old-fashioned faith in science-fiction as an engine for profound parables about the state of humanity. Where too many post-apocalyptic stories issue vague warnings about where we might be headed, Ex Machina examines where we are right now and finds it more oppressive and frightening than any future. When Nathan develops a synthetic skin for his robot, she’s indistinguishable from a real human woman. But Nathan and Caleb know the difference: in their eyes, she’s a toy to be played with.