While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world has confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: that if given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. In every instance.
Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting new film, Ex Machina, seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to Her—Ex Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast.
The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. He lives alone in a slickly modern research facility/dream house hundreds of miles from civilization in a pristine forest abutting some glaciers. His day-to-day routine consists mostly of tinkering with his cyborgs and getting wasted. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior.
Caleb arrives at the house to find a hung-over Nathan sweating out his toxins by pounding a punching bag. With his shaved head, full beard and gym clothes uniform, Nathan is the epitome of the retired tech genius, a Silicon Valley nerd-bro. He shows Caleb around, informing him that his access key will leave the guess work out of his visit—he can enter some rooms, others he can’t, it’s all up to the key card. Nathan’s persona is odd, forced, too casual: He throws lots of “dudes” and “bros” into his conversation, and in an early piece of character foreshadowing, he drunkenly reminisces about how a ghost in Ghostbusters performed oral sex on Dan Aykroyd. Slowly, throughout these early conversations, it becomes clear that Nathan is an expert cipher; an almost maniacal arrogance hides underneath his cool demeanor, ready to bubble up at any time.
Each day during his visit, Caleb has a one-on-one session with Ava to conduct the Turing test. Of course, Nathan is monitoring these meetings on CCTV, but mysterious power outages keep occurring, a strange glitch in this tech mogul’s ultra-wired compound. Ava is coy, curious and innocent in the way only a newly conscious robot can be, but she seemingly laces her flirtatiousness with manipulation. Caleb, of course, betrays his lonely nature, which is how he begins to fall for Ava as their sessions proceed. When she reveals that all is not as it appears to be during one of the power outages, presumably when Nathan can’t monitor their conversation, the stage is very neatly set for the inevitable confrontation between Nathan and Caleb, the two men in Ava’s “life.”
The film delves into interesting discussions about human agency in sexuality, as Caleb questions Nathan about whether he deliberately programmed Ava to flirt with him, but Nathan believes sexuality is a natural component of a robot’s design, much in the same way that human beings are “designed” to be sexual based on forces far from their understanding. Nathan compares his work to that of Jackson Pollack; one must trust one’s instincts, whether it’s in art or artificial intelligence. The challenge, he says, is to not act automatically. The challenge also appears to be whether or not your creation can be controlled if its whole purpose is to act under its own control—so it’s not giving anything away to say that by the end of the film things have gotten completely out of control.
Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble. Vikander especially finds the perfect balance between prosthetic personality and genuine empathy, enhanced by the film’s own teetering between some wonderfully titillating and creepy moments: Caleb watching Ava disrobe over a monitor, revealing her metal and circuitry; Nathan and his other sex-bot performing a jarringly synchronized disco dance; and Caleb losing his shit and questioning his own humanity with the help of a razor blade. It’s an awfully attractive film, too, appropriately seductive. Shot by Rob Hardy, Ex Machina’s aesthetic relies on the contrasts between the vibrant outdoor colors with the cool tones of the inner sanctum of Nathan’s house. The electronic ambient soundtrack written by composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow is hypnotic and lush, adding to the film’s emotional intensity.
In a recent interview with Wired, Garland revealed that he actually has pretty high hopes for the future of AI—but it’s hard to walk away from this film with the same feeling. Yes, the humans seem to be the ones with the real issues—loneliness, insecurity, sexual infatuation—but at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, maybe it’s better we simply deal with the evil we know. Ex Machina will no doubt provoke that conversation and many others about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not.
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Jonah Flicker lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and writes about travel, movies, music, food, drink and Iceland for a variety of publications. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.