Correction appended: April 10, 2015
After Eve: Ava. “She” is an advanced species of robot in female form, her flawless face encased in a Plexiglas skull, her arms and legs an efficient tangle of wires. Her creator, the Internet genius-entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has invited Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his bright employees, to submit Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing Test and determine if the android is self-aware. “If you’ve created a conscious machine,” Caleb marvels, “it’s not the history of man. It’s the history of gods.”
“Deus ex machina” is the phrase applied to the climactic moment in a classical Greek tragedy when gods would descend from the skies to resolve all knotty human problems. And god, or God, is the word that hovers over Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s pristinely creepy science-fiction film. Nathan could be the Old Testament God, who created man (Adam-Caleb) in His image, and woman (Eve-Ava) in man’s. So exactly do Ava’s flawless face, sensational figure and sweet demeanor match Caleb’s notion of the perfect woman that he can’t help wondering if Nathan, in designing the robot, “accessed my pornography profile.”
At 13, Nathan devised the code for Bluebook, “the world’s most popular Internet search engine.” Now he runs the company, and dreams up new cool things, from a remote aerie deep inside a forest about the size of the King ranch. Giant crevices form the walls of his home and lab, which the hairy genius lords over like some troll deity, dividing his spare time between working with weights and getting angrily drunk. Having formulated Ava by simultaneously hacking everyone’s personal computer, Nathan has summoned Caleb for a week’s worth of sessions with Ava, one each day. The young man will probe Ava’s mind while Nathan messes with his.
Garland wrote the novel The Beach, which Danny Boyle filmed in 2000 with Leonardo DiCaprio, and penned the original scripts for two other Boyle movies: 28 Days Later… (zombies) and Sunshine (space epic). He also adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a story about human clones starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield who think they’re human. This early work, and perhaps his parentage — his mother is a psychoanalyst, his father a political cartoonist — well prepared Garland for his first effort as writer-director, which carries the echo of many horror, sci-fi and adventure tales while speaking in its own distinct, quietly commanding voice.
A chamber piece about the first causes and ultimate effects of grand scientific experiments, Ex Machina may remind you of Duncan Jones’ Moon (a human stranded in a space station with his clone) or Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (a brilliant plastic surgeon who imprisons a creature of almost unreal beauty). Ava could be a sister of sorts to three Scarlett Johansson entities: the OS voice in her, the alien in Under the Skin and the turbo-evolving heroine of Lucy. She surely qualifies as “more human than human,” like the androids in Blade Runner (which also had a kind of Turing Test). Look back just a month and find Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, about the search for human identity of a robot not nearly as dishy as Ava.
The scenario of a ruthless man captivating people in a remote location for his science or sport recalls both H.G. Wells’ 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau and Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” both of which spawned many movies. And before all these was Frankenstein, the Mary Shelley novel that celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2118, and whose theme of the scientist playing God can accommodate any number of updates, including this one. Nathan, drunk on his own brilliance, is the savant who would breathe a soul into his new machine. Caleb is the ambitious assistant who fancies he can free the lovely automaton from her creator. In this Olympian chess game, Ava also has a role: as pawn, queen or grandmaster.
Nathan has programmed Ava to be appealing, beseeching, vulnerable. “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” she asks Caleb in one of their early sessions. “Do you think I might be switched off?” We too come to think of Ava not as a rat in a maze, hoping only to survive and escape, but as the woman the lonely Caleb must desire. When her relation to her tester warms up, she dons a wig, a print dress and white stockings — to fully simulate human femininity — telling him, “This is what I’d wear on our date.” Nathan seems amused: “Can you blame her for getting a crush on you?”
We might ask: Can a robot fall in love? Could Caleb, or any young human male, resist her requests? By adding sexual attraction to the artificial-intelligence equation, Garland steers his movie into a caustic meditation on the power that men believe they have over women. Nathan has created Ava; Caleb thinks he can be her lord and mate. They should be mindful of Ava’s status: the deus ex machina who might emerge as a dea, a goddess from a machine.
Garland has distilled these big themes into a hyperbaric chamber piece — one location, three main characters, seven days — with a born auteur’s command of actors and atmosphere. Ominous electronic music (by Ben Salisbury, a composer of music for TV nature documentaries, and Geoff Barrow of the jazz-rock band Portishead) pulses through Mark Digby’s lab set — a suitably sterile habitat that is also a wonder of design. Garland is also bold enough to break the tensely contemplative mood with a frenetic dance that Nathan and Ava perform to Oliver Cheatham’s 1983 R&B hit “Get Down Saturday Night.”
Garland also had spectacular acuity or great luck in choosing his actors. Isaac contributes another portrayal in his gallery of overbearing outsiders, after Sucker Punch and Inside Llewyn Davis; his Nathan thinks that boorishness is an emblem of his superiority. Gleeson, who graduated from playing a lesser Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films (his actor father Brendan was Mad-Eye Moody) to starring as the time-traveling romantic in Richard Curtis’s About Time, is splendid as the questing naïf who gains a backbone to battle Nathan, in the hope he can be Theseus in the Minotaur’s cave.
But the miracle performance is from Vikander, the 26-year-od Swedish actress who starred in the Oscar-nominated Danish film A Royal Affair and made a beguiling international impression as Kitty in the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina. Trained as a dancer, Vikander lends Ava a grace and precision of movement that could be human or mechanical, earthly or ethereal. We can almost watch Ava’s mind work, not because of the see-through plastic casing but because of the actress’s command of each minute stage in her character’s evolution. As a spectral eminence yearning to be a woman beyond Nathan’s or Caleb’s dreams, A.V. makes a great Ava.
She is also the gleaming Exhibit A in the devious experiment that Garland is conducting on the scientist, his acolyte, his robot — and on the viewers. It’s not hard to feel grateful to be his lab rats. Ex Machina is the year’s most seductive high-IQ drama.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the plot of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. It is a story about human clones.