When computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) receives a note of congratulations from his company on his monitor he thinks he’s won a much coveted, in-house competition. Everyone believes he’s to spend a week with the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the man’s way off-the beaten path luxury home up in the mountains. His colleagues are thrilled.
“This is as close as I’m allowed to get to the building,” states the helicopter pilot who flies Caleb across state then drops him off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. “What building?” Caleb asks looking around him.
The house, once Caleb eventually finds it, is not so much a home but an underground research center. For some time, Nathan has secretly worked on experiments with artificial intelligence. As a sharp employee, Caleb was picked specifically by Nathan to spend the week with him not so much to hang out, drink beer and enjoy the waterfalls, but to perform a special task. “Do you know what the Turin Test is?” Nathan asks the confused young programmer.
Caleb is there to spend time with Nathan’s invention, a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). His task is to determine whether Nathan’s machine is indistinguishable in intelligence from that of a human, and if there is a weakness that indicates a divide between something artificial and something real, then Caleb needs to point it out. “I want to share it so badly it’s eating me up inside,” states the CEO.
The film is separated into chapters – or sessions, as in Ava: Session 1 – where each new day spent talking with the robot with the feminine, human mask and the soft and somewhat alluring voice brings Caleb closer to understanding its mind; at least, what he perceives as an understanding, except there’s a problem. Not everything is straight-forward. When the research center’s power temporarily goes down and the CEO in a separate room can no longer eavesdrop on the conversation between the programmer and the robot, Ava’s tone changes. “He isn’t your friend,” the robot warns the alarmed young man and tells him not to believe everything the boss says.
Throughout the early scenes, there’s an odd sense of slow motion creepiness that pervades every minute – practically every frame – of the film. During the opening moments, when Caleb is at work sitting in front of his computer receiving the note that he has just won the company competition, the scene is played in silence and seen from the point of view of the computer looking directly at Caleb. It’s as if we’re viewing the moment through the eyes of someone unseen; a machine studying the reaction of its operator. That same exchange between man and machine continues during the daily sessions with Ava when the robot views Caleb face to face and studies his reaction with the same sense of behavioral judgment that Caleb is using on the robot.
Plus, that creepiness belongs not only to the somewhat mysterious Nathan but also to his home in the mountains. Once inside the heavily protected center that can only be entered with pre-programmed ID cards, Caleb discovers there are no windows; once you’re in, you’re in and there’s no way out. Everywhere has that sleek, cold and somewhat impersonal design reminiscent of an Ikea showroom at its most clinically sparse. Plus, there’s also Ava. “Are you attracted to me?” she suddenly asks in the middle of one of Caleb’s sessions. It takes the young man off-guard, but at the same time it’s an indication of something else beginning to take shape between them. The question doesn’t feel like simple curiosity from the mind of something artificial, especially when it is followed by a question posed with what appears to be genuine concern: “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” Ava asks.
Ex Machina is as sleek looking a film as the interior of Nathan’s home. Unlike Caleb’s character who only starts to think that something other than a Turin Test is going on once he gets to know Ava better, we’re on our guard from the beginning. Some suspicious outcomes and motives occur as you imagine they will, yet the film surprises with an unexpected conclusion that becomes more horrifying the more you think about it, but so too come some puzzling questions regarding that final act. Sadly, to discuss narrative concerns in any detail would require giving away the ending.
However, while real motives are finally revealed creating a less than satisfactory conclusion, the first two acts are gripping as director Alex Garland builds an almost sensual sense of claustrophobia that you instinctively know is not going to end well for certain parties. Oscar Isaac continues his recent winning streak of solid performances, while Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson impresses with an authentic sounding American accent, but it’s Sweden’s Alicia Vikander who has the most difficult job. Every move she makes, every turn of the head or blink of the eye is something audiences will be scrutinizing in order to determine how a physical movement or an odd inflection of her voice gives away the knowledge that she’s just a robot and not real. She does it well. Like the film, Ava is smart, sleek, sensual, attractive and cold.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)