Casually elegant in concept and spookily claustrophobic in execution, “Ex Machina” plops us into the near future, when a hermit genius has devised a foxy android capable of convincing even the audience that she’s got a thing for nerds.
A coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds that he’s won some kind of company lottery at Bluebook, a tech behemoth that handles nearly all of the world’s web searches. Next thing we know, he’s in a helicopter traversing (Alaskan?) wilderness for hours on the way to spend a vacation week with the company’s founding savant Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated student of the work hard, play hard, drink hard school of solitary brilliance.
The two men seem alone in Nathan’s way-backwoods nature compound until Nathan explains the more serious aim of the trip: Caleb must interact with an artificial intelligence he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander) and report on whether she could pass for fully human.
For a sci-fi fantasy, then, “Ex Machina” starts out with an almost untenably simple premise: quality assurance testing. Caleb is off-kilter the moment he meets Nathan; the former, as a younger employee, and one without a lot of social input in his life, is easily jostled by the insouciant brashness and physicality of his superior. Isaac plays Nathan as Elon Musk dunked in tequila and chased with a wheatgrass shot, and it’s no small feat, toward the tone of the movie, as to how easily and affably he dominates his charge.
When Caleb sits down to chat with Ava, however, he realizes he’s looking well into the future, and from a privileged perch. She’s earnest and keen, presented by writer/director Alex Garland as a perfectly human face and hands set against a curvy mechanized body that shows off the whirring inner workings of her arms and guts.
Separated from Caleb by the thick, clear walls of what could only be called her cell, Ava shows curiosity about the outside world. Where, Caleb asks, would she like to go first, if not in this remote compound? “A traffic intersection,” she replies. She wants most deeply to go people-watching.
The sensuality of her form and the flattery Caleb clearly feels as she dotes on his thoughts burble as a subtext immediately in “Ex Machina.” If you’ve seen any of the film’s advertising or heard discussions on it (which you should ignore, by the way, and simply go see the movie, if you’re into smart, sleek science fiction; I’m including this review in that lot, as well, and don’t worry, it’ll still be here when you finish), then you’re already aware that Ava gives off an unsubtle come-hither vibe, to put it mildly.
Nathan says he designed her so fetchingly to make her seem more human, while Caleb suspects her sensuality is meant to disarm him, or any other evaluator. For of course a robot can more convincingly seem human if she can steer an observer’s thoughts.
Set against the wider genre, “Ex Machina,” with its juxtaposition of sex and robotics, plays almost as a prequel to “Blade Runner,” or as “Her” writ small and dark. Seduction and sexuality, fundamental yet endlessly complex aspects of being human, nestle snugly into discussions of artificial intelligence. How better for a robot to hack into human, than to exploit our idiot love-brains?
Vikander as Ava commands a cool-to-the-touch vulnerability that serves this end well. The most advanced scientific marvel of all time turns out to have a coquettish streak in reserve, meant, like the rest of the film, to be completely disarming. “Ex Machina” feels draggy at times, with a small cast and slow pacing, but you will do best to trust that it knows what it’s doing, and to ease in for the ride. Its intelligence may be artificial but it is also firmly in control.