Alex Garland adds fuel to the fire of that age-old debate: are we human because we have living, pumping consciousness, or do we have said consciousness simply because we’re human? In his directorial debut, the novelist-turned-screenwriter lets us think this film is prodding us in the right direction, only to relish every opportunity to sweep the floor from beneath our feet.
In a succinct opening scene, we see awkward computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a once-in-a-lifetime competition to spend a week with the enigmatic and reclusive CEO of his company at his remote retreat. It’s strangely reminiscent of winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but the reward here isn’t sweeties, it’s the chance to be involved in a groundbreaking innovative experiment concerning artificial intelligence.
Caleb doesn’t know anything about his mysterious CEO. No one does. But when he first lays eyes on Nathan (a bullish Oscar Isaac), beating the pulp out of a punch bag, we quickly learn everything we need to know. Nathan is a man of theatrics. He most probably staged their first meeting in order to assert his authority. He is also a drunk, as he quickly reveals by stating that he is nursing the mother of all hangovers. Who exactly is Nathan trying to impress? It all seems a bit unnecessary for the sake of shy and introverted Caleb, who is just feeling lucky to even meet his boss. But before he even has time to crack Nathan’s cryptic opening monologue, in which the CEO attempts to establish a carefree, easy, laddish atmosphere, he is whisked off to begin a tour of the house, if that’s indeed what the lonely mountain estate can be called.
Nathan reveals the true purpose of Caleb’s stay. The programmer is to perform a Turing Test on the latest of Nathan’s many failed attempts at AIs. The current model is chillingly human, with an attractive face and a skeletal figure far beyond what one would typically expect of a robot. It moves with a staggered but authentic gait; it sees with breathing, lurching eyes. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a female. Nathan has rather simply but affectionately named this model “Ava”. The idea of the test is that Caleb must ascertain whether or not Ava grasps human consciousness, or displays functioning human characteristics of her own. Already, we can see where this is going. Nathan didn’t create a beautiful woman robot for no reason. Caleb is going to be tested himself, in more ways than one.
What we immediately gather about these three primary characters is that they are all excruciatingly unreadable. As Nathan brags about his state-of-the-art facilities (he has clearly been deprived of human contact for far too long), we notice the finer details of the house. Ancient statues, tribal masks, a Jackson Pollock painting. We’re forced to wonder why a man who prides himself so deeply on carving the future insists on owning so many relics from the past. Equally, we can’t help wonder why gentle Caleb was plucked from obscurity, or why he is so excited to be engaged in the project. Is it to finally have himself heard, to have his name acknowledged and remembered? He’s as much of a closed book as Nathan. But perhaps most puzzling of all – for obvious reasons – is Ava. She’s wonderfully brought to life by Alicia Vikander, every nuance of her slightly mechanical movement meticulously thought out. She speaks with the standard slow, sultry voice that Scarlett Johansson has made so customary for all female robots in Her. But it is Ava’s consciousness, or lack thereof, that is most intriguing – far more so than the men’s. Has she been programmed to flirt? Does she really feel pain or heartache? If she could cry tears, would they be genuine? Ex Machina asks a million questions, but regrettably hasn’t the time to answer them all.
There’s a moment when Nathan tells Caleb that he had to kill the workers who installed the security network of his facility, because they saw too much of what he was creating there. Caleb’s reaction is blank, and Nathan cracks into a sly grin to suggest that he was joking – but really, we’re not so sure he was. Much of the film is spent reveling in this fight for masculine supremacy. Neither man is prepared to admit that he cannot afford to fail with this project. They each want to be the first to crack the code of artificial intelligence. It’s about the alpha male vs. the beta male, but they’re not competing for the attention of the woman – they’re competing to see who will emerge as the dominant force of intelligence.
When Ava tells Caleb that the experiment is not all that it seems – that Nathan has deceived him – the dilemma delves deeper. Who is Caleb to believe – the innocent and infantile AI, or his charismatic employer? In other words, should he trust the robot, or the human? Nathan is living proof that humans are flawed. They are arrogant, ambitious, and selfish. But Ava is pure and wide-eyed. Her view of the world is Frankensteinian – she cannot understand why her creator would have any cause to do her – or indeed anyone else – harm. She almost gives hope to humanity, and then we must jolt ourselves and remember that she isn’t actually human.
What makes us human? It’s not the most original of questions, but Garland juggles it with impressive constraint. There are hints and undertones of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, and the film has a very obtrusive techno feel to it, as if it is perpetually trapped in the 70s or 80s (especially when Nathan breaks into fantastically impromptu and mesmerising dancing to Get Down Saturday Night). You can’t even blame this film when it arguably glosses over scientific theory, because there’s just so much going on here. Science fiction? Thriller? Erotic? It’s impossible to categorise. As Caleb frightfully informs Nathan, to meddle with the realms of human consciousness and creation is not an act of man, it is an act of God. In the end, as one might expect, the AI arguably emerges as more human than the humans themselves, but the real skill of this film is the thrusting, writhing thrill it injects as it unravels. It’s survival of the fittest, but with a new species in play.