As far as fiction goes, perhaps no trope is older or more natural than the classic monster story. From Medusa to Voldemort, legends of beings that are just a few degrees from human have haunted and mystified campers and moviegoers alike for thousands of years. But while werewolves and vampires trace their roots back to days of old, there’s a different kind of monster specific to the last 50 years or so, one that has managed to raise even more questions about the definition of humanity and its implications: the robot.
Humanoid robots have been the subject of a whole canon of films and literature over the past few decades, and Alex Garland’s new film, “Ex Machina,” is perhaps the newest addition to the list. The film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at Bluebook (the film’s version of Google) who wins a corporate lottery. The prize is a week with Bluebook’s founder and computer genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain estate. Upon his arrival, Caleb learns the true purpose of his visit when Nathan reveals his latest undertaking, the creation of artificial intelligence, and casts him as the human component in a Turing test to determine whether or not he has truly succeeded. Over the course of the 108-minute film, Caleb engages in a series of interviews with Nathan’s masterpiece: a svelte, endearing automaton named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
While Caleb’s task is in no way simple, it gets even more complicated when Ava, taking advantage of a mysterious power outage that disables Nathan’s surveillance equipment, warns him not to trust his human host. Ultimately, Caleb will have to choose between his two companions and, surprise surprise, decide which one is more human than monster and vice versa.
As a whole, “Ex Machina” is sleek and cerebral, with little action or outright conflict up until the very end. Instead, the film revolves around its stunning visual effects and well-crafted dialogue. Since there are only three speaking characters in the film, practically all dialogue falls into one of two conversations: Caleb and Nathan, or Caleb and Ava. Of the two exchanges, the second is significantly more interesting.
Despite her co-stars’ comparative fame, Vikander is the real standout of “Ex Machina.” The film’s entire premise depends on her ability to convince the viewer of Ava’s humanity, and she succeeds with flying colors. Delivering each line with a coolness that is equal parts chilling and charming, she encompasses the conflict between man and machine. Visually, Ava is clearly a machine—her transparent torso reveals her blinking circuitry, and her body whirrs as she moves. Yet her flashes of insecurity, humor, and curiosity betray flickers of humanity that allow her to pass the most important Turing test of all: that of the audience. While Caleb tests Ava, we’re testing her, too, and it’s essential to the film that she pass.
As a consequence of her achievement, every minute without Vikander on screen feels like a minute wasted. When Caleb is not interviewing Ava, he’s drinking or hiking (or both) with Nathan, throwing around heavy-handed banter that feels more like a Contemporary Civilization discussion post than anything else. (It’s hard not to roll your eyes when Caleb looks out over a rushing waterfall, vodka in hand, and mutters, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”) For all its triumphs, “Ex Machina” is unable to strike a perfect balance between showing and telling and ends up trying to do a little too much philosophizing for its spectators.
While it may not be perfect, “Ex Machina” has almost certainly carved out a place in the science fiction canon. Stylish and surprising, it manages to nod to predecessors such as “I, Robot,” “A.I.,” and “Her” while maintaining its own identity in the lineup. In the end, “Ex Machina” manages to bring something new to the conversation, and that alone makes it worth seeing.
“Ex Machina” is currently playing at AMC Loews Lincoln Square.