Perhaps the most surprising thing about Ex Machina, a claustrophobic science-fiction movie in which two very different men orbit the female artificial intelligence one of them created, is that the she-A.I. is played by someone other than Scarlett Johansson. Over the past few years, we’ve had a run of movies that have engaged with the idea of post-human consciousness through a female face or voice or form, and no matter the story or its tone — twee in Her, trashy in Lucy, darkdarkdark in Under the Skin — it’s been Johansson who’s been asked to lend her absolute womanhood to the not exactly human part. Indeed, one might be forgiven for assuming that there was an industry-wide flow chart for every sci-fi script, with an arrow pointing to “Call Scarlett’s agent” whenever a transhuman female role comes up.
But now the string is broken, and we can contemplate the post-human feminine in the form of Alicia Vikander, the mostly unknown actress starring in Ex Machina. Though it’s not really her form, at least at first: When we meet Vikander’s Ava, she has a human face and silhouette, but her body is a mix of steel and mesh and sleek clear plastic, through which networks of lights and wires and cords can be discerned.
Ava inhabits a sealed-off set of rooms in the most isolated of houses: a modernist hacienda perched over a river and beneath an Andean mountain range, far from roads or neighbors and accessible only by helicopter from the distant outside world. The owner is a tech mogul and supergenius named Nathan, played by my favorite actor of the moment, Oscar Isaac, as a bulked-up, bearded brogrammer who gets hammered by night and detoxes by day, and in between finds time to experiment (in several senses of the term, perhaps) with the artificial consciousness he’s whipped up in his digital lab.
Nathan’s guest, the Marlowe-in-Africa or Harker-in-Transylvania figure through whom we’re introduced to this strange world, is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a bright young techie who thinks he’s won a contest inside his company, a Google–Facebook hybrid called Blue Book, to come hang out with its reclusive CEO. The reality is obviously somewhat different: It’s immediately clear that there can’t have been anything random about the contest; that Caleb — orphaned, single, nervous, well-meaning — must have been selected by Nathan for a very particular task or role. The only question is what that part is really meant to be.
Officially he’s there to test the alluring Ava, to conduct some version of the Turing Test to figure out whether she’s actually self-conscious or just a really clever program designed to ape the way that human beings talk and smile and (in this case) flirt. But nothing that happens feels in any way rigorous: not his first tentative, then captivated conversations with Ava; not his encounters and arguments with the sometimes buddy-buddy, sometimes bullying Nathan; not Nathan’s strange world (which includes a mute servant named Kyoko who doubles, in the film’s strangest and strongest scene, as a disco-dancing partner); and definitely not the atmosphere of unreality created by deep isolation, constant surveillance, heavy drinking, and basic metaphysical instability.
Eventually that instability becomes quite physical as well. The violence, when it comes, is occasionally shocking, but the revelations that precede it aren’t that surprising: If you know your Frankenstein and your “Bluebeard,” you’ll be able to map out a lot of the territory, and Ex Machina occasionally makes you expect some wild, Shyamalan-level twist (maybe they’re all robots . . . !) without actually veering that far from a more predictable trajectory. Which is something I respected about the movie: It’s confident enough in its story and its smarts that it doesn’t need to trick or befuddle or otherwise deceive to entertain.
That confidence probably reflects the prior experience of the director, Alex Garland, who is new to the big chair but who has been working on smarter-than-average speculative cinema as a screenwriter for many years, mostly in partnership with the prolific director Danny Boyle. The two men joined forces for The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine, and Garland also wrote the screenplay for Never Let Me Go. Given the preoccupations in those movies — failed utopias, zombies, space travel, cloning — it’s not surprising that Garland turned to A.I. for his directorial debut; given their overall quality, it’s not surprising that he got the mood and tone and plot just right.
So long, that is, as you keep your expectations reasonable. I’ve seen reviews that lavish a little too much praise on this movie’s philosophical forays, its take on the patriarchy or the eternal feminine, its of-the-moment gestures toward controversies about mass surveillance or Silicon Valley sexual politics. All of that is there, certainly, but not all (or even most) of it is particularly groundbreaking. Ex Machina is a thinking person’s monster movie, but let’s be clear: It’s still primarily a movie about those old reliables, mad scientists and killer robots, and the more you accept that going in, the happier you’ll be when you come out.