Writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a psychological thriller in which some of the psyches aren’t human. As it opens, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at a Google-like company, wins a corporate contest and is whisked away to his employer’s remote retreat. He has not been brought to this Dwell spread of a home to lounge about. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has been building artificial intelligence robots and has selected Caleb to administer the Turing test on his latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). This is not Alan Turing’s test. Rather, Caleb is to assess Ava’s sentience by testing her ability to form romantic relationships.
Though it is structured as a series of dyadic conversations, Ex Machina functions as a love triangle. Caleb and Ava are the obvious pairing: she’s the digi-damsel in distress; he’s her knight in normcore armor. Garland wisely suggests that they are cognizant of these tropes. Ex Machina’s real seduction, however, involves Caleb and Nathan, who appeal to each other’s interests in technology. In the early going, Nathan persuades Caleb to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This isn’t sci-fi; it’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
That leaves Nathan and Ava, the most opaque of Garland’s dyads. Alternately father and daughter, Frankenstein and his monster, and co-conspirators; they are Ex Machina’s standout performers. Vikander’s Ava, who possesses a body made of blown glass and ribbed plastic that whirrs as she moves, is not robotic so much as she is too human. She is a walking uncanny valley. Nathan, too, is an alternate vision of human perfection. Isaac plays him as a steroidal Sergey Brin: alternately frightening and hilarious. Caleb and Ava appear scared of appearing in the same carefully composed frame as Nathan.
You know where Ex Machina is going and so do its characters. As in a chess match, all the possible moves are knowable but cannot coexist. Garland’s script asks whether these characters are as smart as they think, a question that could also be asked of Ex Machina. Garland’s most interesting conceit is that artificial lifeforms ought to be gendered because that’s how the world works. Ex Machina therefore functions as an interesting deconstruction of the male gaze, albeit one that attempts to have it both ways: A meta-exploitation film, as the surfeit of breasts reveals, is still an exploitation film. Nevertheless, Ex Machina is irresistible. It is a film about the seductive power of ideas that is amply alluring.