Oscar Isaac has got some moves. With a burly man beard and a sparkly, 70s disco step, his bro-y but benevolent tech guru character Nathan shows no rhythmic faults when do-see-doing with Kyoto, his abused robo mistress. It’s a peculiar scene in “Ex Machina” but a welcome one, indication that writer/director Alex Garland knows just how and when to shut off his film’s oppressive mood for a much needed, Bee Gees breather. And for a movie that delves so much into free will and programmed choice, we’re happy that Garland and crew found a storytelling middle ground to let their AI flick think freely.
We follow Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), gifted programmer and slight social recluse at a Google-esque company who wins a competition to work with Nathan on a secret project in a lush, exotic landscape. Greeting Caleb with one hand and continuously offering him beer with another, Nathan reveals that he’s poached Caleb into performing a classic Turing test to determine if his new robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is or can be the real human deal. Ava is an impressive specimen, speaking with childlike sincerity and curiosity but with adult intelligence and reasoning skills. As Caleb acts as unofficial therapist to Ava’s whims, he grows increasingly suspicious of Nathan’s true intentions, while wondering if Ava dreams of electric Caleb sheep at night.
It all amounts to fascinating blend of paranoia and insecurity that doesn’t relent through its 108 minute runtime. The two non-robotic characters reluctant to show their emotions, ironically, the very thing that makes them human. Caleb is befuddled not if Ava has the ability to be sexually attracted to people (a revolutionary leap forward in AI), but if she’s actually into him (spoiler: no, of course not.) Nathan drinks constantly, decreasing his mental ability to process information, while the sober Ava grows by the second. And as the characters walk through narrow hallways and half-complete glass doors of this isolated nature compound, they become self-aware that they are stuck in scientist’s maze, desperately trying to determine whether they are scientist, mice or the cheese.
“Ex Machina” also glazes over themes of data collection and digital privacy but doesn’t delve into them as much in favor of the common AI tropes. There’s so much more Garland could have said about digital devices acting as doubles of actual humans, or how the rich and wealthy can observe us without our knowledge or consent. But Garland’s omission of these themes proves to be a wise move, echoing how our basic human drives always take precedence over advanced thinking. When Caleb finds out that Nathan has read everything from Caleb’s bank statement to his drunken Facebook messages to friends, the one thing that the lowly programmer is most upset and embarrassed about is Nathan’s analysis of his porn-viewing habits. When Nathan tells Caleb he’s essentially downloaded the entire internet and change into Ava, Caleb doesn’t react with disapproval but amazement, that this robo-girl he’s been crushing has dissected every Wikipedia article and ranked the plausibility of each “Game of Thrones” fan theory.
Whether or not she’s human, Ava is still the total sum of all of humanity’s effort and knowledge because of that download. And for an actor who has to play a hyper-aware, super-intelligent robot, Vikander does it with grace, insight and intrigue. Gleeson is a natural fit for Caleb, attempting to stand tall in front of Nathan and later bending his knees to sit down at Ava’s whim. But Isaac is the true delight at Nathan, capturing the obnoxious zeal of a Silicon Valley tech bro with the shady, corporate malevolence of an “Aliens” Weyland-type CEO. Every one of Garland’s shots are anchored to reflect the oppressive nature of the glass maze the characters find themselves in. And as the movie comes to its harrowing close, we find ourselves wondering just like Caleb not if we liked Ava as a person, but if she liked us.