What does it mean to be human?
That’s the question at the center of Ex Machina, the brilliant directorial debut from writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later). It’s a topic that’s preoccupied science fiction for years. The discovery of new technologies and other forms of intelligent life create situations where those who invent or discover them have to question what we consider human fundamentals if the world around us changes. Here, that non-human intelligence comes from a robot named Ava, and the question of what it means to be human is paired with another: how close can artificial intelligence come to being human?
Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at a superpowered tech company that’s essentially the lovechild of Google and Facebook (or, what Google would be if Google Plus was used by nearly as many people as Facebook). He wins a company-wide contest that gives him a week with the company’s reclusive owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan wants Caleb to perform a Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), who’s sealed in her own quarters, to determine if she’s a legitimate A.I., or if she’s imitating human behavior. Ava, though, begins pressuring Caleb to help her escape. What are Ava’s intentions? Or anyone else’s? That’s where Garland shifts his focus, since Caleb, Nathan, and Nathan’s sole servant are as mysterious as Ava.
The story’s basic structure isn’t exactly original. What makes Ex Machina work, though, is how Garland fills in the story. The details matter, from the layout of Nathan’s underground home (more high-tech prison than anything) to the synth-driven score. Garland works to make sure the film feels like it’s just shy of careening over an edge. The conversations between Caleb and Ava, as well as Caleb and Nathan, grow increasingly volatile – just enough to feel like an explosion is pending.
The way that the characters approach each other keeps things interesting, as well. Caleb’s initial encounters with Ava treat her more like a child than a woman (or an A.I.). Both Nathan and Ava, though, try their own ways of seducing Caleb; Nathan with a series of attempts to create a relaxed, bro-to-bro relationship, Ava with a slightly clichéd “mysterious woman” affect. What makes these attempts interesting is that Caleb is clearly aware of both of their efforts, and obviously trying to keep them in check.
Ex Machina works more through its particular style than the substance of the story, but the style alone works remarkably well. It helps that all three of the film’s leads play off each other so well. Of particular note is Isaac, who has to simultaneously repel and seduce Caleb and the audience while giving the story its main momentum. Isaac’s been a strong player in films for years, and just before his name explodes with significant roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s good to see him challenging himself yet again here.