Garland’s directorial debut is a pretty damn scary look at a possible near future where internet zillionaire whizzkids are tinkering with hugely important and powerful technologies with absolutely no ethical oversight. Nathan (Isaac) is the bulti-squillionaire boss of Bluebook, the world’s biggest search engine, who is holed up in his beautiful, secluded mountain retreat. Caleb (Gleeson), who works for Bluebook, wins a competition at the office to go and hang out with Nathan. Once Caleb gets there, he realises that he was actually hand-picked by Nathan not just to hang out with him and get drunk, but to become part of Nathan’s obsession, which is to create the world’s first true artificial intelligence. Caleb is introduced to Ava (Vikander) and invited by Nathan to see if Ava passes the Turing Test, or rather, Nathan’s version of the Turing Test, because Caleb already knows that Ava is a robot. As Nathan says: “The challenge is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.”
What’s great about this film is that despite its straightforward, linear yet gripping narrative, it is also nuanced, multi-layered and thought-provoking. “This is a feminist film,” Garland said as he introduced the screening I went to, and while it might seem that an expressly female robot and a film in which one man so explicitly controls Ava and Kyoko, Nathan’s assistant, is emphatically not a feminist narrative, by the end of the film it’s clear that Nathan’s attempt to control his environment and his creation is futile. There’s a whiff of Bluebeard about Ex Machina, and the knight-in-shining-armour trope is strong, too, as Caleb decides that he must rescue Ava from Nathan – and both of those are also thoroughly subverted.
Those are by no means the only references Garland deploys: there’s a whole grab-bag of them, including a whiff of The Stepford Wives and a throwaway borrowing of Chomsky’s discredited theories of language acquisition. Part of what makes the film so good is that there’s so much for the viewer to notice and take away, and the references you spot and enjoy will probably be different to those others see. Which means that there isn’t really one orthodoxy on what it all means and what you should take away from it.
For me, it’s a powerful allegory of what happens when we don’t pay enough attention to what billionaires get up to in their spare time: I was uncomfortably reminded that Google now owns a number of robotics companies. Others will focus on the undoubtedly superb special effects and the overall look of the film, which is beautiful as well as creepy and claustrophobic.
The three central performances are as strong as the script and the realisation, with particular praise due to Vikander, who has to convince not only Caleb, but also the audience. She’s young, but her youth is part of the strength of her performance: there’s a freshness about her appropriate to the growing awareness of a new creature, the robot, and a fragility that’s underlined by the robot framework that’s so exposed.
If you’re after a smart sci-fi thriller with a strong and uncomfortable dash of “what if”, Ex Machina is unmissable.