Caleb, a shy mouse of a programmer at Ex Machina's stand-in for Google, wins a one-week visit to the vast, remote mountain retreat of the company founder he idolizes, reclusive genius developer Nathan (played with relish by Oscar Isaac).
Nathan has one reason for bringing him there: he has built an artificial intelligence he believes can pass for a human, and wants Caleb to administer a variant of the Turing test. Given that Caleb already knows the android, Ava, is artificial, can he still see past her somewhat stilted phrase construction and exposed mechanisms, and relate to her as something akin to a human being?
It's fascinating to think of how a well-used special effect can help forward a movie.
Ava is played by Alicia Vikander, but there's nothing visible of Vikander other than her face and hands – the rest is computer imaging making her look like a construct. Her artificial body blends in seamlessly with the scene, never distracting you. She does a subtle, amazing job of playing Ava, with her controlled voice and facial expressions capable of conveying emotion, but doing so in discrete transitional increments – an issue that an android learning to blend its expressions would likely have at first.
Actress and CGI work so well together that, as a viewer, it's easy to forget that Vikander is indeed a person. This puts you in precisely the same spot as Caleb – a difficult trick to pull.
As Caleb begins to test her, his initial questions are more oriented towards basic language comprehension. He wants to figure out if she's something other than a nice chassis, a translucent iELIZA. There's a certain power imbalance to their interactions. Caleb is hesitant, unsure of how to proceed, wanting to impress his employer. Ava, on the other side of the bullet-proof glass, relishes the contact, can't wait to talk more, and seems to almost have it in her nature to be forward.
Ten years ago this movie wouldn't have been possible. You wouldn't have had such a natural blend of artificial and human on screen. Either you would have ended with a distracting CGI robot, who we can't see as anything other than a special effect, or someone pretending to be an android through facial ticks and stiff movements, where we have a hard time seeing past the person playing them.
In Ex Machina there is no disbelief to suspend – we buy the whole thing right away. We aren't sure if Vikander is supposed to play a android with a vast database of canned responses, or if she is human-like in anything but her hardware and wetware. We are in the small interrogation booth with Caleb.
Is Ava acting out of something akin to free will, or feeding Caleb lines pre-programmed by Nathan? Is Caleb's behavior affected because he's being watched by someone who's not only his boss, but the idealized techie genius inventor personified? Is Nathan as much of an overbearing asshole as he sometimes projects, or is it part of an act to control the experiment?
Part of how the movie gets to be so good at what it does is by side-stepping the usual bumps that would trip a movie about a technical topic. “How did you build her?”, Caleb asks of Nathan, giving the perfect opportunity for the writer to spew out some silly technobabble about knowing Unix. Nathan says he doesn't want to go into technical details – not because he doesn't think Caleb would understand, but because he wants a conversation, not a seminar.
Instead, the movie spends its time making some points about humanity, and mind games, and how much of what we believe is choice is hardwired. How we change our behavior when we think someone's watching. The nonchalance of those running the massive surveillance machines that call themselves search engines. If you combine all these, are we what we think we are, or what we present to the world?
Alex Garland got some interesting comments about the online zeitgeist, such as a social media as a map not of what people are thinking, but of how people are thinking. He does forget that early on he had remarked that we behave differently when we're being watched than in private, and thus someone who interprets humanity from its public interactions would likely get the wrong impression.
Then again, maybe that was his point.
#exmachina #alexgarland #aliciavikander #oscarisaac #domhnallgleeson #sonoyamizuno #sciencefiction