Who ya gonna call?
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is a very-near-future sci-fi that uses both the “Rebellious AI” formula and a modern retelling of Bluebeard to delicately veil some vital commentary on the male gaze, what happens when women are literally reduced to objects, and the horrifying idea that the most abominable abuses of technology will be perpetrated not by mad scientists or terrorists with world domination on their minds, but by our eccentric billionaire tech moguls when they happen to be bored.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lonely schlub doing code work for Bluebook, a facsimile of Google. He apparently wins a lottery that rewards him with a week at the secluded residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator and owner of Bluebook, who is so averse to trespassers and interruptions that even his personal helicopter pilot is only allowed within a mile or two of the complex (when Caleb is dropped off, he is told to “follow the river” to reach Nathan). All of this happens within a concise minute or two, which makes room for what’s actually important (most of that is in retrospect, but it always feels like it’s moving at the right pace).
Of course, Nathan, who lives entirely alone save for a silent “assistant” named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and spends most of his time stifling hangovers, has not invited Caleb here just to hang out (although he does treat him like a frat buddy most of the time). He wastes no time in revealing that he’s already built an artificial intelligence, and that Caleb is here to perform a Turing Test on her – normally, this would involve the tester not knowing whether he was speaking to a computer or a human, but Nathan believes that the real test will be whether Caleb still relates to the AI on a human level after already knowing she’s an android. A round of testing begins, separating the film into several “sessions,” and Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the real protagonist of the story, whose ordeal is only viewable through glass walls and security cameras. They get to know each other through carefully contrived small talk, but by the third day, Ava is wearing a dress and wig and asking whether Caleb is attracted to her. Of course he is. Her face and body were designed by a heterosexual man. Luckily, Caleb is aware of how preposterous this is. He confronts Nathan about whether Ava was “programmed” to flirt with him, but Nathan just sees it as exciting proof of Ava’s ability to pass for human.
The film avoids mumble-science and plot holes by having Nathan simply not care to explain to Caleb how Ava’s circuitry works (which seems like one of those “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” jokes, but makes much more sense when the layers are peeled back later). We are, however, taken on a tour (along with Caleb) of Nathan’s laboratory, where we learn that Ava’s brain is a flexible gel, not a bunch of rigid metal parts, giving her the potential to grow. During the off-hours, Caleb and Nathan drink beer and discuss various uses of Ava’s body, including her sexual abilities, which are apparently as functional as any human’s. These scenes are meant to be uncomfortable and gross, but imitate that thing a lot of men do: make disgusting talk about a woman’s body when she’s not in the room. Whether or not that makes you cringe is actually the movie testing you (and I’m guessing there will be a direct correlation between folks who don’t squeam at Nathan’s claim that “Technically speaking, you could screw her” and folks who think this is just another fun android movie).
From the moment Caleb arrives, something seems off. As the tests go forward, mysteries pile up and unravel, including a series of power cuts in the complex, ostensibly caused by Ava, but it’s a bit odd that Nathan, a scientific genius, doesn’t seem to suspect her (he blames the “power guys” who installed the system). The power begins cutting off during Caleb and Ava’s conversations, and while the cameras are out, Ava tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says. The stickiest part is that Nathan hasn’t said much of any urgency; in fact, we have no clue what Nathan’s long-term plans for his AI project are. If Ava passes the test, what then? The seclusion of the complex has a Kubrik effect on both the film’s camera and music, and on Caleb, who gruesomely harms himself to make sure he isn’t actually a robot. The two “buddies” clearly suspect the other of some sort of manipulation or foul play, but neither can be sure to what end, and we as audience can’t be entirely sure that Ava hasn’t manipulated the entire situation just so she can get out of that glass room she’s been in for years. Then there’s Kyoko, that wildcard, who supposedly doesn’t understand English, but performs physical tasks for Nathan at the drop of a hat (cleaning, dancing, and you can guess what else).
Some secrets have to be revealed in order to really talk about this movie, so here goes. Caleb does legitimately fall for Ava, but although this would allow her to pass the test, he can’t reveal it to Nathan, who plans on dismantling her and creating a new model, as he has done with about a dozen other beautiful female androids who have all shared the same mind; thus, Ava has been stuck in the same glass room for countless years (the footage of the previous “models” trying to escape is truly harrowing; luckily, Ava has learned subtlety through these experiences). The reason that Nathan feels no need to explain Ava’s construction to Caleb is that Caleb is the test subject: although he is not a robot, he’s experiencing something of a reverse Turing Test – Nathan has instructed Ava to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, just to see if Caleb will become attached enough to her to actually help. Success here means that Ava has true human emotion. Still no word on what Nathan plans to do with the AI next, but Caleb is disgusted at Nathan’s treatment of the older androids and feels personally betrayed by him as well. Ava, however, does want to escape and has manipulated Caleb, as much as Caleb might think himself a genius for arranging a snafu in the complex’s security protocols. Nathan warns Caleb that Ava doesn’t really love him, but it’s a bit late for regret now.
The endgame, in which we’re treated to the characters’ attempts to puzzle out who has more successfully manipulated whom as we try to do the same, is not only tense, but truly means something because of how well we know everyone. Oscar Isaac (a.k.a. Isaac the Incomparable) plays Nathan as a genius billionaire who acts like a frat boy, not like Bruce Wayne, and for all of his latent brutality, he still reminds you of your bratty brother: spoiled, deserving of severe punishment, but so fucking amiable that you can’t imagine being the one to pass the sentence (luckily, we have a certain android to sort that out). Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb as the nerdy would-be hero of any other story like this: the scrawny everyman, ignored by women, who gets a big opportunity, uncovers corruption, and restores society’s moral compass after finally achieving his well-deserved true love. But guess what? He’s actually just as bad as Nathan, in all his Bluebeardedness. Being ignored by women doesn’t make him a lovable loner; it makes him desperate and opportunistic: when he finally encounters Ava, an android woman who not only possesses human emotion and a sex drive, but whose very face is an amalgam of Caleb’s most frequently watched porn actresses, he can’t wait to bust her out of that glass room – not because of the unspeakable wrongness of her situation, but because of the promise of sex. One of the many things the film does successfully – more successfully, maybe, than any film I’ve seen – is to subtly illustrate different types of evil and where they come from. And I don’t mean Dark Lords and Talking Killers and expository psychosis; I mean real evil, the kind that actually exists in people who don’t consider themselves the least bit wrong.
Finally, there’s Ava, who has so thoroughly passed her “tests” before the story even begins that she is able to conceal her true feelings (and as we later find out, her plans). Alicia Vikander plays her as what she is: an android, but also a person, and her inner conflict is perhaps even more difficult than that of the “real” humans because her past, her emotions, and her desires have all been programmed into a glob of complicated Jell-O that acts as her brain. Like a human, however, she is able to grow, and that includes experiencing things like love and happiness, but also deceit, manipulation, and cruelty – all those things we employ in the name of desire.
Ex Machina (2015); written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.