Films about artificial intelligence, from “Blade Runner” to “Her”, tend to pose two key questions: first, how can we prove that a machine has consciousness? And second, would a conscious machine have human rights? But once such films have posed those key questions, they usually move on to the issues they’re really interested in. First, will these machines decide to murder us all and take over the world? And second, will any of them look and sound like beautiful women? What’s disappointing about Alex Garland’s shiny new science-fiction mystery, “Ex Machina”, is that it seems genuinely fascinated by the first two questions, only to discard them in favour of the last two.
Its hero is Caleb (the likeably gangly and awkward Domhnall Gleeson), an eager young programmer who works for a Google-beating search engine. In the film’s brisk, almost dialogue-free opening sequence, Caleb wins the jackpot in a company-wide lottery, his prize being to spend a week with the reclusive CEO in his remote country retreat. Personally, I’m not sure that sleeping in your boss’s spare room for a week qualifies as a prize, particularly if he is notoriously anti-social, but Caleb is delighted, even when he is deposited by helicopter in the middle of nowhere and informed that he has to trek through the woods to find his boss’s secret lair. When he gets to the house, and meets his mysterious host, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), he is still delighted, never mind that the musclebound CEO’s shaven head and bushy beard indicate that he might not be very well adjusted. Anyway, Nathan quickly reveals the real reason for the trip. He has built a robot with artificial intelligence, he says. Caleb’s job is to subject it to the Turing Test; to judge from its conversation whether it is thinking for itself. Caleb and the robot will sit and talk, separated by a glass wall, like Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, while Nathan watches them on his monitors.
The best thing about “Ex Machina” is its robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Her face, hands and feet appear to be covered in human skin, but her limbs and belly are transparent, so you can see her inner workings through a plastic mesh. It’s an arresting design and a remarkable digital conjuring trick, and it’s so seamless that you soon forget that it’s a trick at all. But even though Ava is obviously not made of flesh and blood, she has the sleek figure, ready smile and doe eyes of an attractive woman, and Caleb is instantly smitten. He seems convinced that she is a sentient individual before the end of their first interview. And when she tells him that Nathan is not to be trusted, he takes her at her word.
I wasn’t so sure. Caleb and Ava’s question-and-answer sessions, which supposedly last all day, are dispensed with in a few minutes of screentime, and during those few minutes Ava never says anything to prove that she is autonomous, rather than an automaton. This strikes me as a fundamental problem, because if we are to take the film as seriously as it takes itself, we have to believe that Ava has thoughts and feelings—or, at least, we have to understand why Caleb believes that she does. But “Ex Machina”, like Caleb, soon forgets the issue of whether Ava is conscious or not. All it cares about is that she is flirtatious, that Nathan is menacing, and that Caleb is nervous. Having set itself up as an intriguing philosophical head-scratcher, it rushes to become an old-fashioned adolescent fantasy about sexy killer robots. As cutting-edge as it initially seems, it reminded me more than anything of 1982’s “Android”.
It also fails its own Turing Test; it doesn’t fool the viewer into believing that anyone onscreen is a human being, as opposed to a stock character in a movie. And it has nothing new to say about the ethics and dangers of artificial intelligence. Instead, its message is that some men will fall for anyone who looks like Alicia Vikander, even if she is made of plastic. But most of us knew that, anyway.
Ex Machina Out now in Britain. Released in America on April 10th