Alicia Vikander: is she human or not? The question that troubles the cast of Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb Smith), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Oscar Isaac (Nathan Bateman), Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko)
It’s the age-old story of creation: man yearns for the power of the gods. There is something intrinsically god-like about the desire to create life and to develop a new creation. Ex Machina is a film that precisely explores this idea (along with a host of others). In the struggle to create an artificial intelligence, are we motivated to further mankind – or is it a perverse desire to become God ourselves?
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low-level coder working for a Google-like organisation founded by genius inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb wins a competition to spend a week at the reclusive home of Bateman, a solitary modernist house cum research station in the middle of a secluded forest. Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a series of interviews with his new invention – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), as part of a Turing Test to ascertain if she is truly intelligent or not. However, over the week, the mysteries of the house darken – and, as Caleb begins to develop strong feelings for Ava, the question arises of who is manipulating whom.
Ex Machina is a confident, fascinating piece of film-making from first-time director Alex Garland, who also writes a screenplay stuffed with ideas. It challenges and provokes discussion, carefully outlining a story of deception and counter-deception, demanding multiple viewings to unpick truth from lie. Garland is also a brilliant chamber-piece director, drawing fantastic performances from his cast, and shooting the secluded house in such a range of styles and angles that it feels both expressive and claustrophobic. Ex Machina is an extremely intelligent small-scale discussion piece, which would make as terrific a play as it does a film.
Among its themes is the question of man striving for god-like control. Nathan, a prickly, socially uneasy and unempathetic person, wants God’s mantle – and is willing to treat his creations with the same ruthless indifference, he demonstrates to Caleb, and the users of his search-engine. His knowledge of humanity is based on essentially stealing an understanding of our thoughts and desires from our search histories, so creating artificial intelligence is simply a progression from the control he already has.
It’s especially creepy that the androids Nathan creates are all attractive young women. Throughout, the film explores the attitudes men have to women. To Nathan, it’s increasingly clear they are objects. He proudly brags about how Ava is both sexually attractive and fully capable of experiencing sex. He treats his housemaid (and sexual partner) Kyoko with a contempt bordering on outright cruelty. Nathan is possessive – and you suspect it’s logical to him to make the first in the next generation of his perfect race as a woman, subservient to him.
Caleb has a healthy but romanticised view of women –he wishes to see himself as white knight, sweeping in to save the woman he loves. He has a lovestruck, teenage protectiveness and devotion towards Ava – qualities, the film suggests, make him ripe for manipulation (the question being from whom). Caleb’s entire attitude towards women is protective – he is increasingly disgusted by Nathan’s vileness – but still in its way paternal. Caleb is naïve and strangely innocent, prone to hero worship – and his initial devotion to Nathan slowly transfers to Ava.
A lot of this works because Alicia Vikander’s Ava is such a fascinatingly elliptical figure. Vikander and Garland skilfully leave you guessing: just how human is Ava? Under observation from Nathan, her discussions with Caleb seem cold and functional. During the many brief power cuts that blight the lab, when they are alone from CCTV, she appears to be far more emotional and tender. But what does she feel for Caleb? Is it genuine feeling – or an approximation designed to draw Caleb in? Her desire for freedom is a genuine human feeling – but how is she going about this? In scenes where we glimpse her alone, Vikander’s movement and expression are neutrally unreadable. It’s a fascinating superb performance from Vikander, both tender and gentle and also unsettling and creepy.
The script never loses its way, and never gets overwhelmed by cheap thrills. There are moments of violence and danger – and the ending of becomes increasingly dark – but it all seems a very natural progression. Because the ideas of seeking freedom from oppressive masters – and mankind looking to abuse the powers of the gods over their creations – feel very real and true. These are ideas that are endlessly fascinating – and the film explores them in brilliant detail, without ever flagging, becoming bogged down in tedious discussion, or letting its ideas overwhelm the plot.
Ex Machina is a fascinating film, brilliantly acted – Isaac and Gleeson are quite simply superb as two very different tech geeks, struggling with ideas about humanity they can scarcely begin to understand and express. The effects to create Ava are extraordinary (and Oscar-winning). Alex Garland makes himself as a director of true promise – and Ex Machina is a film that can take its place as one of the compelling, intelligent and intriguing science-fiction films of the 2010s.