“Ex Machina” is an “Island of Dr. Moreau” for the singularity era. It’s a cerebral, chilling and austere thriller that stokes our fears about digital privacy and artificial intelligence, a film that works largely thanks to a breakout mechanically empathetic turn by Alicia Vikander (“A Royal Affair,””Seventh Son”).
Domhnall Gleeson (“Frank”) is Caleb, a top-notch computer coder who has been summoned to the remote Norwegian retreat of his reclusive search engine mogul boss.
Nathan (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) is a little eccentric, a genius who lives alone, save for a silent Japanese servant (Sonoya Mizuno) in a bunker of a house in a sylvan, mountain setting. He’s approachable, calls Caleb “bro” and likes his beer and his workout routine.
Caleb has won a contest that singled him out for a special job. Nathan’s latest breakthrough is a sentient robot, artificial intelligence that could be “the greatest event in the history of man.” “History of gods,” Caleb corrects. “It’s Promethean, man.” The film’s title has told us that much, taken from the Greek “Deus ex machina,” “god in the machine.”
Nathan needs Caleb to administer a week-long series of questions, a “Turing Test” to determine if this machine has a conscience, thinks for itself, etc.
Ava (Vikander) is a wonder. We can see the metallic components that make up her innards, hear the servos whirr with every movement. But the little skin that is there covers an expressive face, her head twitching like a curious bird, her voice nuanced to create empathy as she picks up on Caleb’s social signals.
She is complicated, fascinating, and as Caleb notes, “non-autistic.” She has empathy and flirts.
“Are you attracted to me?”
Caleb can talk tech with Nathan and talk about life with Ava and that takes him “through the looking glass,” wondering just who is manipulating him, and to what end.
Nathan has callously ignored Asimov’s laws of robotics that might protect humanity from the grave threat that everyone from Arthur C. Clarke to Stephen Hawking has warned us about. Context is key, as a film about this subject with another in a long line of shapely robots comes after “Her” and the Euro thriller “Eva” (a robotic child). Is Ava a mechanical cure for loneliness among the technorati, or an agent of our doom?
No actor is making more consistently interesting choices than Isaac, these days. Nathan is menacing and charming, condescending and encouraging. The Irish Gleeson unleashes an impeccable American techie accent here and lets us see the wheels turn as Caleb tries to reason out where his sympathies should lie and who the greater threat is.
But Vikander and the effects that erase a big chunk of her body make “Ex Machina” work. Thanks to her, the directing debut of writer-producer Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”) is a movie that’s another emphatic flag of caution about digitally surrendered privacy and digital submission to a fate Big Tech seems pre-ordained to sentence us to.
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno
Credits: Written and directed by Alex Garland. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:45