Artificial intelligence is an intriguing and fertile ground for storytelling in part because of the eerie uncertainty of just how human a fabricated being can be. Ex Machina, the debut directorial effort from Alex Garland, plays along the boundaries of the A.I. well, but ultimately settles on becoming a rather uninspired thriller. Once the twists have unspooled, the motivations driving the plot are fairly perplexing and I have to imagine the air of chilly tension will be exhausted on a second viewing. This is all especially disappointing because, early on, there are suggestions that the movie intends to be more thoughtful and emotionally rewarding than it is.
The basic plot involves Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a skilled computer coder invited to a secluded compound by reclusive genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). There, Caleb is asked to test how believably human Nathan’s latest project is: a robot dubbed Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb initially has a wealth of questions about the mechanics of Ava, who despite some distinctly human features—e.g. her face and arms—retains a conspicuously metallic and skeletal torso. Nathan waves those heady engineering concerns away, opting to ask this question: “How does she make you feel?”
The second day of the experiment, he asks another pointed question: “How does she feel about you?” As with Spike Jonze’s spectacular A.I.-themed Her, there is an opportunity here for an intimate portrayal of a newly-conscious being discovering itself and another; in theory, Ex Machina should even have an advantage over Jonze’s film because it is not limited by the A.I. being formless. Unfortunately, the movie fails to capitalize on this potential.
From the beginning, Ava is confident and serious. There is never any sense that she is growing more aware of herself or her surroundings, even as Caleb asks her probing questions about her state of mind. She seems to have already grown comfortable in her skin, not at all concerned with feeling out the divide between her human and robotic natures. Contrary to expectations, she does not appear to grow more autonomous or thoughtful as time goes on. I don’t mean to suggest that this was a mistake on Garland’s part. Keeping Ava at something of a distance could very well be intentional, as despite Nathan’s claims that he is testing how believably human she can be, it is apparent that the movie seeks to have viewers remember that she is a machine. There’s something of a parallel between she and Nathan, in fact, insomuch as both are viewed through a suspicious lens; Caleb, and the audience, cannot be sure which of the two is being sincere, if either.
It’s not a mistake, but I believe it is a misstep. By catering to its “thriller” urges, the movie forsakes its chance for building something powerful. The closest it gets is in a moment late in the film where Ava sees another prototype robot, but with synthetic skin covering its entire body. She stares for a long while at the nude female figure before her, running her hands over her own body and feeling the cold metal beneath. It plays almost as a wordless instance of Ava considering her limitations, but the scene devolves as she begins peeling the skin off the other robot for her own use. There are no like moments where Ava contemplates her existence. Instead, the focus remains tightly on Caleb, always on edge because of Nathan’s wild mood swings and seemingly cryptic threats. Though the movie requires Caleb to become infatuated with Ava, and to begin questioning whether she is being held prisoner by Nathan, there is never really any reason for the infatuation. Like too many movies before it, Ex Machina apparently believes that the mere presence of characters of the opposite sex translates into chemistry.
In fact, there is an element of sexuality to the movie, but that too is shallow. Ava claims to be attracted to Caleb and clothes herself in a dress to be more attractive to him. We later watch him watching her via closed-circuit video camera as she removes the dress. The scene is entirely structured from his perspective—the male gaze—without any indication that the moment has any importance for Ava, sexual or otherwise. The scene doesn’t even bother addressing the complexities of the emotions at play, as once Ava has disrobed, the metal lattice and lights of her torso are once again visible; how does this abrupt shift from human sexuality to cold machination affect either of them? We’ve no idea. Later, Nathan reveals to Caleb that Ava is, if not anatomically correct, anatomically approximate. She allegedly has genital sensors that would make sexual contact pleasurable for her. Again, the movie doesn’t explore the idea in any greater depth. She never actually experiences those feelings, or has to grapple with them; we are just told that it is a capability she has. To the movie, it’s just cool to think about having sex with Vikander. It is not interested in Ava’s actual feelings, or in Caleb’s either, for that matter… at least, not beyond his lustfulness.
I early on wondered why Ava was visibly female. I wondered whether she identified as female and why. Whether she had any sense of aesthetics. Whether she felt pangs of resentment, or grief, or anxiousness when hearing about other humans and the outside world. Whether she identifies as human. Invariably, the answers are vapid or unexplored entirely. The movie is simply not interested in digging into the line between humanity and inhumanity. Frankly, it’s not interested in creating three-dimensional characters at all. Its characters exist in service of the moody, paranoid genre picture that the plot is working its way toward. It probably does that reasonably well, with a claustrophobic atmosphere and spooky, dimly lit set design. But even if it is done well, there’s nothing special about that. It would have been a much more dynamic film if it had emphasized its characters’ motivations and inner turmoil. As it stands, Ex Machina is just a stripped down version of Hollow Man or Deep Blue Sea: nervous characters locked in a box, waiting for a loosed evil to jump out from around every corner.