Suppose that futurist
Ray Kurzweil is wrong about the Singularity. That's the moment at which, theoretically, machines will no longer need all of us pea-brained caffeine junkies, and perhaps a mechocalypse will follow. Their influence will be positive instead, helping us reach closer to some sort of immortality. Check back in 2045, Kurzweil says. Even if that's not accurate, he is still right with respect to his Law of Accelerating Returns, which states because so many things can advance our innovation now—chip speed, memory capacity, cost effectiveness and so on—they will all work together to keep technology not just moving exponentially further but moving exponentially faster to get there.
That's why "Ex Machina" is so frightening. There's not much to the premise: A search engine billionaire wants to create a computer that passes the Turing Test—in other words, an android that can be believed as human by another human. How close are we to that reality?
A programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week with the reclusive Nathan (Oscar Isaac), interview Ava (Alicia Vikander) to test her artificial intelligence and gauge her progress as an android. Visually, she is humanoid but certainly not human, with a sheath of tubing and circuitry and flexible mesh-like skin covering every part of her body but her angelic face.
That, of course, is part of Caleb's test, too: The young programmer is instantly attracted to the android, which may cloud his objectivity, but may also prove the point Nathan is trying to make.
Most of the dialogue is guarded and duplicitous; after the first 20 minutes of "Ex Machina," everyone in every scene has at least one secret. Nathan knows more about his experiments than he lets on, Caleb has some knowledge of things he doesn't believe Nathan shares, and even Ava might have some tricks up her sleeve.
This is the first time behind the camera for Alex Garland, whose filmography begins with the adaptation of his novel, "The Beach," for director Danny Boyle and also includes the scripts for Boyle's "28 Days Later," the film adaptation of "Never Let Me Go" and the underappreciated "Dredd," a comic book reboot from 2012. "Ex Machina" is an auspicious start as a director, full of atmosphere but grounded in the three characters.
The cheese on the mousetrap here is Alicia Vikander, whose cool, distant Euro-beauty will get a lot more screen time this year in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and a couple awards season films. The effect Ava has on Caleb has to mirror the effect Vikander has on the audience. She is beautiful, haunting, fragile and quite literally trapped in her circumstance. Gleeson, the son of the burly Irish great, Brendan Gleeson, was superb in the romantic comedy "About Time" and has some "Star Wars" in his near future. This is not a particularly dynamic character and his motives are a lot more emotional than rational, but Gleeson still does a nice job. As for Oscar Isaac, between this film, "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "A Most Violent Year," there aren't many rising actors who can match his recent output and flexibility. And hey, would you look at that: He's in the new "Star Wars," too.
The previous and upcoming roles for these young actors don't mean much in terms of this film, but they're necessary to this point: Because they're not established names and faces, their anonymity helps "Ex Machina" seem like it could happen next year, or in five years, or who knows—maybe not until 2045. But no matter when you think it takes place, the machines are certainly coming. And then what?