Science Fiction may be the defining movie genre of our time, but too often it's just a vehicle for escapist space adventure or paranoid dystopian fantasy. A sci-fi movie that actually has intelligent things to say about science — that's all too rare. It's what we get in Ex Machina.
Human scale, mind-stretching and eerie, it's the debut feature from the novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later). For his first time in the director's chair, Garland goes easy on himself, creating what is essentially a chamber piece with only four main characters. Yet working within these constraints, Garland shows an uncommon command of tone.
In Ex Machina, Garland balances absurdist humor with the throb of imminent disaster and just a hint of forlorn romanticism. It's hard to imagine another director squeezing as many shades and colors from his screenplay as Garland did, and from now on, it would be understandable if he insisted on directing everything he writes.
The inevitably of real artificial intelligence is the subject, with Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a computer coder who wins a contest to stay for one week at the home of his boss, a tech superstar. When he was 13, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) created "Blue Book," which in the world of Ex Machina is the biggest search engine in the world, with 94 percent of Internet search traffic. Now he lives in a lavish underground compound, a two-hour helicopter ride from his nearest neighbor, working on experiments that can re-direct the course of human life.
Isaac has been on a fast track to stardom since Madonna cast him in a major role in W.E. three years ago. He has grown with every opportunity, and he gave one of the best performances of 2014 in A Most Violent Year, but in Ex Machina he has something extra, the glow and confidence of a movie star. To see him here is to have, for the first time, a sense of his doing something that might be called "an Oscar Isaac role," playing someone charming, relentless and mysterious.
After persuading Caleb to sign a non-disclosure agreement that basically allows him to spy on the poor guy for the rest of his life, Nathan reveals his purpose: He has been working on a robot that he believes has true consciousness, not simulated consciousness, and he wants Caleb to meet "Ava," to ask her questions and to see if he agrees.
Ava is a robot with the shape and voice of a woman, and with a human face, hands and feet. The rest of her looks like a machine, and the joining of metal and flesh looks almost grotesque, and yet not quite. For the role of Ava, Garland wisely cast Alicia Vikander, a young Swedish actress with a face of such feeling and delicacy that we are aware of a sensate, human-like force, despite the metal plate she has in place of hair.
The title derives from the Latin phrase "deus ex machina" (God from the machine") and invites the viewer to contemplate a possible world in which the Gods — in this case, human inventors — are no longer necessary, and the machines are on their own. Like Frankenstein, it presents the spectacle of human-created intelligence and then asks what that would mean in spiritual terms. Can artificial life have a soul? Or (horror of horrors) would the mere fact of artificial intelligence prove there's no such thing as the soul?
On more practical terms, the movie gives us a blueprint for how an artificial consciousness might be created, using search engine data to discover, not just what people are thinking, but how people think. In such moments, Ex Machina makes the future feel close at hand, as in too close — as in something we should probably start worrying about, now.