The latest British movie to play the imitation game, Ex Machina, is the directorial debut of novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland. This time, the stakes are higher than the Nazi conquest of Europe. The talky sci-fi puzzler turns on nothing less than the potential displacement of humans by artificially intelligent cyborgs.
Then again, maybe the film is just another riff on the battle of the sexes.
The movie's title abbreviates deus ex machina, Latin for "god from a machine." (It's a reference to ancient Greek plays where a god character materialized at the end to put everything right.) In Garland's scenario, the god is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the tech prodigy who launched and controls Bluebook, a fictional mashup of Google, Facebook and a nongovernmental NSA.
The machine is Ava (Alicia Vikander), devised by Nathan much the way another startup founder invented Eve. Ava sports a synthetic frame that's mostly see-through, but covered and curvy in all the right places. She has sex appeal, but does she have consciousness?
Determining that is the assignment of the third main character, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a Bluebook coder. If Nathan is approximately a god and Ava transparently a goddess, Caleb is the patsy.
The most sweeping assertion of Ava's importance comes from the bushy-bearded Nathan, who has summoned Caleb to a remote house/research lab nestled in a Nordic wilderness. Nathan seems to live entirely alone in this prison-like abode, which may explain why he's a little batty and often drunk. Eventually, though, he introduces an unspeaking, geisha-like servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).
(Is she an android, too? Don't overthink your answer.)
Nathan asks Caleb to conduct a Turing test on Ava to determine if she has achieved true intelligence. Of course, the original Turing interrogation involved a computer that's hidden from the questioner, not an alluring replicant who openly flirts with him.
To his credit, Garland addresses the implausibility of his scenario and allows Nathan to explain why he mated AI with erotic robotics. There's much debate of individual versus collective identity, and of thought versus instinct. The writer, whose previous scripts include Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, even includes a brief lecture on Jackson Pollock — a moment that announces the film's Europeanness as surely as its minimalist look and abundant female nudity.
Since Ex Machina consists mostly of dialogues between Caleb and Ava or Nathan, it has plenty of time to discuss the narrative options. There are only three: 1) Ava has been cunningly programmed to appear capable of thought. 2) She is actually thinking, and is also sincerely fond of Caleb. 3) She's a conniving liar, which would mean she really is smart.
None of these possibilities is likely to lead to a startling payoff, but the movie is reasonably diverting until its predictable (and predictably misogynistic) outcome. Isaac offers an intense and literally pumped-up variation on his customary role as the super-confident, highly motivated outsider. The waifish Gleeson flickers believably between arrogance and self-doubt. As a creature who may be either puppet or puppetmaster, Vikander is suitably elusive and fascinating.
Still, the movie is less a drama than an exercise in style. It relies heavily on the epic Norwegian exteriors, the willowy actresses — both Vikander and Mizuno are former ballerinas — and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's buzzing, skittering score. For all its chatter about intelligence, Ex Machina is better at being than thinking.