Let me say this right up front: Alex Garland’s dazzling film EX_MACHINA is, in its own way, as mind-blowing as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I insert the qualification “in its own way” because Kubrick’s tableau was the enormity of the universe and all of human history, while Garland has chosen a far more claustrophobic and time-limiting setting.
It opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech geek for a Silicon Valley search engine giant, winning an in-company contest in which the grand prize is a week one-on-one with Nathan, his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain home. Nathan is one of the world’s smartest people, yet he goes out of his way to be a regular guy, welcoming Caleb to his high-tech palace. He’s all T-shirts and swilling beer, constantly calling Caleb “Dude”, but after Caleb gets settled in, reality begins to unfold.
Nathan has been working on a supersecret artificial intelligence and had in fact pre-selected Caleb to “win” the contest so he could put Caleb to the Turing Test, an exercise in which a person must determine if a machine can exhibit human speech and behavior to the point where a human cannot tell if he is talking to a machine or to another human. Caleb is skeptical, but agrees to take the test, so he is introduced to Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander in a properly spooky performance) is Nathan’s AI creation and Caleb meets with her every day. They speak through a glass partition and are constantly monitored by Nathan’s cameras. Apart from the wiring visible in her stomach, Ava seems human enough and Caleb gradually gets comfortable with her. But eventually, it all comes down to ulterior motives, and you find yourself asking exactly who is manipulating who.
That’s not the only dilemma this film poses, however. Not by a long shot. It asks the same type of big, big questions Kubrick asked in 2001. No answers are offered, but your mind gets pried open whether you want it or not, and the questions haunt you long after the final credits have rolled. At one point, Caleb and Nathan are discussing the Turing Test and a chess computer is mentioned. Caleb asks, “Does the computer know it’s playing chess?” rather than merely reacting to the human’s moves on the board. He then says, “Does it even know what chess is?” The application of this broader concept to Ava, along with its consequences, are shattering.
Garland, who also wrote the incisive screenplay, does not back down from any of this. Nor does he settle for a Hollywood ending. In addition, he wisely defuses the script from the potential quicksand of indecipherable tech talk by explaining the science in breezily accessible terminology, keeping viewers’ attention riveted to the screen and their brains in high gear.
You don’t see a film like EX_MACHINA come along too often. In this case, once in 47 years, since the opening of 2001. I didn’t know anything about it when I went to see it, and so it revealed itself to me exactly as Garland had intended.
Recommendation: Drop everything and go see it. This is easily the most intelligent film in decades and the best film of 2015. Alex Garland has fashioned a masterpiece.