The British novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland specializes in stories where the future and the present collide head-on like trains speeding down the same track. The collision tends not to go well. Whether it’s the adrenalized zombie apocalypse of 28 Days Later, the doomed space mission of Sunshine, or the chilling alternative reality of Never Let Me Go, he seems to regard humanity with the same rueful skepticism that genre predecessors Michael Crichton and Philip K. Dick once did. Now, in his directorial debut, the visually sleek and intellectually knotty Ex Machina, Garland turns his gimlet-eyed gaze toward the high-tech field of artificial intelligence. It too doesn’t go well.
Domhnall Gleeson, who was last seen in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, stars as Caleb Smith, a slightly nerdy computer-programming whiz who works for BlueBook, a Google-like search-engine giant run by a reclusive eccentric named Nathan Bateman (A Most Violent Year’s Oscar Isaac, mischievously channeling the mad-genius trio of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and J.F. Sebastian, the replicant designer from Blade Runner). Caleb wins a company-wide competition to be helicoptered to Nathan’s remote glass-and-concrete Bond-villain lair, where his boss informs him that he will be the human component in a top secret Turing test—a series of interviews with Nathan’s latest AI creation, Ava. And what a creation she (it?) is. Played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, angelically peeking out from a mesh exoskeleton with an exposed midriff of blinking-circuit guts, Ava is remarkably lifelike despite her C-3PO–as–sex-doll appearance. Her facial expressions are subtle, her movements have balletic grace, and her ache to be human is almost palpable. Nathan is rightfully proud of Ava and needs Caleb to interact with her in a series of one-on-one sessions and determine whether she’s realistic enough to pass for human. Or, at least, that’s what Nathan tells him.
Like the hero of John Fowles’ 1965 novel The Magus, Caleb soon discovers that he’s not just involved in a science experiment, he’s the test subject—an unwitting lab rat in an architecturally groovy Skinner box hooked on Nathan’s pellets of friendship and flattery. And as Ava begins to flirt with and confide in him, Caleb starts to question Nathan’s motives. Garland’s cerebral setup is loaded with menacing promise and kinky possibility. But just when you find yourself settling in for a giddy brainteaser, the story goes slack, unraveling into a hash of familiar sci-fi themes (hubris, the limits of consciousness, creations rising up against their creators). As they say in screenwriting seminars—and in the corner suites of Hollywood studios—the movie has “third-act problems.” Ex Machina is beautiful and ominous and features another delicately nuanced performance from Isaac, who’s quickly making a habit of them. But in the end, for all of Garland’s ambition, his reach winds up exceeding his grasp. The film is as synthetic as Ava. B