As Ex Machina opens, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lanky, awkward coder of some sort, wins a staff prize. He’s whisked off to the middle of nowhere, landing in a glass-and-concrete home-slash-bunker where his company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is out boxing on the deck. Nathan is a man of extremes: shaven head, giant beard, either drinking himself into a stupor or working himself into a sweat.
Caleb, like the audience, is initially unsure what he’s doing there, until Nathan spells it out: He’s developed an artificial intelligence and wants Caleb to talk to it, to see if it passes the Turing test. Can it convince Caleb it’s an intelligent being?
For several days, Caleb meets and interviews Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s AI. Ava appears decidedly not-human — when she tilts her half-metal head, it causes an eerie whirring sound, like hummingbirds or dragonflies — but her wide-eyed responsiveness intrigues Caleb. She wants out of her glass-walled room. Will Caleb help her?
Nathan is helpful or rude, brilliant or wasted; he lives alone but for his silent chef/maid/aide Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). When, during a power outage, Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan, the setup’s inherent tension — the testing, the locked rooms, the isolation — ratchets up.
With its looming soundtrack and soulless environments, Ex Machina presents as a kind of technological horror film, its lead at the mercy of a dangerously smart man. Before long, it turns into a different kind of horror, as Caleb uncovers Nathan’s secrets and begins to doubt his own humanity, even as he tries to understand whether Ava has any.
Sleek, glossy and unsettling, Ex Machina generates far more questions than the singular Nathan poses to Caleb. Is it feminist? Is it misogynist? Is it about gender or technology? Can it be about both? Can you use the question of an AI’s desire for freedom as a parallel to women’s struggle to not be seen by men as objects to be improved or reprogrammed? What if you reverse that question? What if you reversed the genders of the characters? Is the fictional history of robotic females a history of man’s assumption that women are less threatening? Does putting an AI in a female-presenting body make it female? Does it think so?
Ex Machina is full of reflective surfaces; it’s a funhouse mirror on our fears and ideas about technology, information (Nathan’s Google-like company is doing everything you think a creepy tech company might do), identity and power. It’s also a challenge to our notions of heroes and villains, ending on a note that’s either satisfying or disturbing, depending on the character with whom you identify. Who is this story about, and why do you think that? What are you programmed to believe? (Bijou Metro)