There’s a moment, Ex Machina’s big visual smack in the face, in which writer-director Alex Garland, probably unwittingly, reveals his hand. It’s imagery that, I would be utterly unsurprised to learn, was something that popped into his head disconnected from anything else, imagery he deemed so cool, so you-guys-gotta-see-this!, that he set himself then and there to building a story around it. I’m not, of course, going to spoil what this moment consists of, but suffice to say that it could have just as readily been slotted into a story about a serial killer.
That’s when we realize this: For all that Ex Machina tells the tale of an Internet genius gazillionaire who brings in one of his underlings to apply a Turing test to the self-aware robot he’s built, this isn’t actually a story about artificial intelligence. Which is good, because this movie doesn’t contain a single notion about AI or about how we meatbags might interact with one that Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t examine in far more compelling ways almost 30 years ago. (Filmed SF is always decades behind the literature. But it’s pretty inexcusable for a new science fiction movie to be beaten in the SF-concepts department by an old TV show.) There is one mildly interesting idea about search engines, but it comes and goes and is not essential to the story.
And it doesn’t matter, because this is, in fact, a story about how men treat women. A man is either chivalrous and kind, or a man is an evil monster. Now, there’s nothing interesting or fresh or even usefully true in such a cartoonish dichotomy, so that’s not great. And what’s worse, I have a terrible suspicion that Garland thinks he has made a feminist film with a strong and complex female character simply because a man of each of these ridiculous stripes argues about what to do with her.
Ava (Alicia Vikander: The Fifth Estate, Anna Karenina) isn’t actually female human person, of course. She’s an android AI who appears to have some very conventional ideas about what it means to at least pretend to be female (these involve, for instance, wearing demure virginal-white dresses). This may be because she was designed, built, and kept in complete isolation by Nathan (Oscar Isaac: The Two Faces of January, In Secret) at his remote supervillain lair, where he lives only with a servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who speaks not at all but goes about her duties wearing as little clothing as possible. Nathan has some twisted ideas about women, as Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson: Unbroken, Frank) discovers when he arrives after winning a mysterious contest in the headquarters of Nathan’s Internet company Bluebook, where Caleb is a programmer.
It begins to become clear that Ex Machina is to be a battle between a Nice Guy and a Neanderthal when Ava — during the conversations with Caleb that he’s meant to be using to determine if she is truly conscious and self-aware — hints at what a terrible person Nathan is. “Don’t trust him,” she says. “Don’t believe him.” And: “He’s mean to me.” Well, she might not use that precise phrase, but that’s what it comes down to. Caleb’s Nice Guy chivalry is engaged! How can he help Ava without letting on to Nathan that there may be a rescue in progress?
Ex Machina truly would be no different a movie in any significant sense if Nathan were a serial killer holding Ava prisoner and playing some perverse game in which he allows his captive to talk to a person. You know, as a sort of tease before he dismembers her for his pleasure. (Nathan has obviously perfected artificial humanish skin, so why isn’t Ava entirely covered with it, instead of merely her face and hands? As we learn along with Caleb, Ava is, not unsurprisingly, far from Nathan’s first attempt to create an AI; previous iterations of his robots, all female, proved to be more intractable the more realistic approximations of women they were, both in their minds and their bodies. Women! Always demanding not to be Nathan’s prisoner! How ungrateful of them! Anyway, dismembered female parts are a recurring motif here. And yeah, even if they’re not “real,” they’re still realistic and here for your titillation, and that’s a problem.)
I’m tempted to wonder why — yet again — the fact that a guy (such as Garland) has written a couple of good screenplays (28 Days Later and Sunshine) suggests to the movie money people that he’s capable of directing a film. But really, it’s the script here that is the biggest problem. (Visually, the film is sleek and elegant, which only makes its thematic banality even more unpleasant. A pretty movie! And pretty dull.) Ex Machina goes about saying all the nothing it has to say with pretentious tedium. (“It’s Promethean!” Nathan shouts about his work at one point. You don’t say?) Every moment that is meant to be shocking is drearily conventional. Its one attempt to tip a toe into something a little bit trippy (but still clichéd) is backtracked on instantly. Garland may want to blow your mind, but all you’ve blown is a couple of hours.