Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made: smart, thoughtful, well-acted, beautifully shot, and ingeniously structured. Above all, it’s a thought-provoking examination of artificial intelligence, human psychology, and gender. It’s unfortunate, then, that it winds up falling prey to the exploitation it purports to critique – deliberately, perhaps, but in a distracting manner that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a futuristic, Google-like search engine giant, wins a drawing to spend a week at the remote mountain estate of the company’s reclusive genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Flown by helicopter to Nathan’s facility, Caleb quickly learns the reason for the visit: his job is to test Nathan’s lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), to find out whether its AI consciousness can pass the Turing test. The week begins innocently enough, as Caleb meets the miraculous Ava and begins to judge her capacity for human interaction. But as the sessions continue, Caleb learns that something odd is going on at the facility, and his investigation spins off in dark, mysterious directions.
Ex Machina is confident and engrossing, building its human and science fictional mysteries with subtle, effective reveals that pull the viewer inexorably through a maze. It’s visually stunning, but the driving force of its execution is performance. Gleeson shines as the film’s quietly decent hero, while Isaac’s gloriously sleazy Nathan is played to perfection. Vikander, too, is impressive, making Ava feel ever more unknowable and alien as the film progresses, even as she looks more and more human. The plot is thoroughly satisfying, carrying the viewer from innocent intrigue to jaw-dropping discomfort as the unsettling truth is exposed in increments. It’s tight, smart, and powerfully executed in almost every respect.
But late in the game, Garland falters. The film builds, quite deliberately, to an examination of the inherent problem of an artificial person’s potential for being exploited. Ava is Nathan’s creation: not just objectified, but literally an object, and technically a prisoner. As this realization dawns on Caleb, it dawns on the viewer as well, and thrusts them rather effectively into the uncomfortable spaces of Garland’s message. The script drives this twist quite purposefully, and there is an ethical underpinning to it, thematically. But the direction, I think unnecessarily, indulges in the behavior it’s ostensibly critiquing by lingering rather leeringly at the nude robots with whom we’re supposed to sympathize. Films of this nature tread a fine line: are they critiquing exploitation, or actually exploiting? Ex Machina steps over that line and stays there several frames too long. The ogling also breaks the suspension of disbelief; an otherwise immersive story suddenly becomes, transparently, a movie with the seams showing, in which a male director is clearly manipulating his actresses – while, perhaps hypocritically, berating one of his characters for committing the same crime.
That’s a troubling scar, alas, but the surface of the film is otherwise flawless. Garland does, indeed, command this material and one comes away wondering if this one sleazy decision is part of the grander plan: to get the audience to think about the implications of its SFnal premise, and by extension how that reflects back on the uneasy truths of our reality. The best SF does this, and at the end of the day Ex Machina earns that badge.