Ex Machina shows why we men should maybe leave directing the movies about subjugated robot women to women. Ditto for subjugated alien women, mutant women, zombie women, and ghost women. Writer/director Alex Garland clearly went into this project trying to make the zeitgeisty scifi movie of our populist feminist moment (alas, except for a passing reference to “black chicks,” it’s got its emancipation-phasers set to skinny white girls), and he almost sticks the landing. But how much robot bush can a guy put in his movie before it’s not about female empowerment anymore? Maybe there should be a Bechdel test for that.
I’m giving it a hard time. It’s not that bad. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, who coincidentally played a sex robot himself on an episode of Black Mirror), a coder at tech giant
Apple Blue Book, gets invited to spend a week at the remote Alaska estate of company owner Steve Jobs Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once he signs an NDA, he learns why he’s really there: to take part in a Turing test for Ava (Alicia Vikander), a prototype AI that Nathan has been working on in solitude. Over the course of a week, Caleb will have a series of conversations with Ava, then report his impressions to Nathan.
What happens next won’t surprise you that much, and that’s fine. The story is as sleek and predictable as an iPhone (or maybe just an HTC One); title cards for the different days of testing partition off creepy twists re: Ava’s development with the soothing regularity of new Angry Birds levels. Garland’s script wisely doesn’t pretend that it’s doing anything new—every time Caleb says something ‘intellectual,’ like “This isn’t just the next chapter of man, it’s the first chapter of God,” Nathan makes fun of him for quoting someone far smarter than himself.
While most of the movie’s effort (and budget) clearly went into Vikander’s eerie android, Isaac is the real reason to watch. His hard-drinking, wisecracking tech bro seems like he walked in from a better movie and decided to stick around for moral support. Not only is Isaac entertaining, he makes Nathan’s emotional range—excitement at Caleb’s enthusiasm, self-satisfied frustration with Caleb’s intellectual inferiority, solitary alcoholic depression—into something way subtler than anything else on the screen. Gleeson and Vikander are good, but the script doesn’t encourage them to color outside of the lines. Given that the movie is supposed to be about, you know, Ava, Isaac is something of a mixed blessing, but if you have an interest in (or disdain for) Silicon Valley culture, he makes Ex Machina necessary viewing.
Had the other stars been given leeway to match Isaac’s wit, the film’s ending might have been one of the best jokes in recent movie history. As is, it’s got plot holes more conspicuous than the robot vagina Nathan spends an entire scene describing. Like he did in the script for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Garland puts “genius” scientists in confined circumstances and has them make choices that an eight-year-old would laugh at. Maybe I’m being too nitpicky, but I feel like characters who name-drop Wittgenstein should have more basic survival skills than horny teens in a horror movie.
Whatever, it’s not like fans of heady scifi movies can afford to be picky these days. If Philip-K.-Dickian paranoia is your idea of comfort food, or if Battlestar Galactica didn’t have enough svelte robot babes for you to ogle, this is a fun one.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510