It seems very likely that in the not too distant future scientists will look at “Ex Machina” and will think its filmmakers definitely did their homework. Writer director Alex Garland posits that the creation of an artificial life form is not a question of “if,” but “when.” His next step is to ask head-scratching questions such as how will we know when we have created a new life form, how will it react with its creators, and just who the hell are we to be playing God?
If any person could reach the pinnacle of technology it would have to be someone in the mold of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, which seem to be clear inspirations for Nathan Bateman, a tech billionaire played with perfection by Oscar Isaac. Nathan has created a company not too dissimilar from Google and has set up a special contest for his employees in order to participate in a secret assignment that involves a tight non-disclosure agreement. The winner is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) who is flown by helicopter to Nathan’s secluded home way up in the mountains. “Secluded” is a bit of an understatement, since the helicopter flies for over two hours over beautiful terrain, which the pilot informs Caleb all belong to Nathan.
The house where Nathan lives is part Bond villain lair, part Apple laboratory. There are glass windows everywhere that let in natural light except in the actual bedrooms where there are no windows, but doors that can only be opened by key card. As for Nathan, upon first impression he seems like a nice guy for a billionaire living all by himself in the middle of nowhere. Sporting a shaved head and a full beard, he frequently says “dude” and addresses the awkwardness of the situation before laying out the purpose of Caleb’s presence as if they were two buddies about to have a fun week of fishing.
Nathan has created a thinking/walking machine and wants Caleb to administer the Turing test, whose purpose is to determine whether or not a machine is actually sentient through various interactions. Caleb is of course overjoyed to be a part of this experiment, knowing that it could change the course of history. A Turing test is apparently usually conducted with the human participant in one room while communicating with the machine in a separate room, but Nathan has something different in mind.
Sitting in a glass box Caleb has various conversations with the robot Ava who looks and sounds like a technological wonder, but is also very attractive since she is played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. With each passing day spent talking with Ava it becomes clear to Caleb not everything is what it seems. Nathan spends his mornings working out like an athlete, but in the evenings he gets drunk leading to unpredictable behavior such as saying he killed the people who built the house for secrecy’s sake, but never adds the words “just kidding” as though it was implied. There are cameras everywhere in the house, but every now and then the power will go out imprisoning Caleb with Ava who takes the opportunity to ask some pertinent questions of her own.
This is a very smart movie and it knows full well how smart it is. You don’t need to be a computer expert to be fascinated by its concepts because when Caleb gets too technical Nathan asks him to talk just like a regular guy. When there are indications there is a twist in the plot, Caleb comes up with a theory as to what the twist might be, leading to scene that could make you squirm if you don’t like the sight of blood.
Enough about the story or I might get into spoiler territory. Suffice to say if you prefer your science-fiction cerebral rather than loud and brainless like the “Transformers” movies, which have sadly made about a thousand times what “Ex Machina” did at the box-office, then you will definitely be engrossed from start to finish. This is a movie that would have Isaac Isamov thinking for hours after leaving the theatre.
(“Ex Machina” is available on DVD and Blur-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)