Ex Machina derives its title from the Latin “Deus ex machina,” meaning “god from the machine.” The film’s removal of God from its titular equation is apropos, as is the allusion to classical tragedy. In this polished directorial debut, Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine) has crafted something of a modern Greek tragedy: Ex Machina is a tight-knit, small-scale story focusing on a mere four characters, employing a tortured quasi-familial dynamic as it barrels inexorably toward poetic justice. Garland uses his science-fiction conceit to explore familiar themes in a new context – human hubris, dysfunctional gender relationships – any of which would be right at home in a classical myth. Like many science fiction stories, in looking ahead into the future, Ex Machina ends up looking back into the past.
Garland deserves a great deal of credit for bringing this project to life. His screenplay is tightly coiled and astonishing in its efficiency. The opening sequences move at a breakneck pace, handily subverting many world-building tropes in order to focus on what is really important. His direction is deliberate and precise, and the film does a great job juggling tone – unexpected humor arises on more than one occasion, but Garland never loses sight of the omnipresent underlying tension. Yet a small-scale piece like this relies heavily on its characters, and Ex Machina has an excellent cast.
Dohmnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) is the film’s beating heart as Caleb, a young lackey at BlueBook, a fictional equivalent to Google. After winning an in-company lottery, Caleb travels to the Alaskan estate of BlueBook’s reclusive founder – and here, to his credit, Gleeson continues to exude simple decency and good intentions even as his situation reveals new and ominous depths.
At the estate, Caleb finds himself alternately patronized and terrorized by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a vaguely unhinged technological prodigy. Isaac, who is one of our most reliably terrific up-and-coming actors – over the past two years, he’s given two indelible performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year – brings Nathan to life with unexpected exuberance, yet never goes too far over the top. Contrary to the nerdy stereotype one might expect, Nathan is constantly gulping down beers or lifting weights – but this he-man masculinity never undercuts his fearsome intelligence. After pressuring Caleb into signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals that he has been developing artificial intelligence, and wants Caleb to take part in an elaborate series of tests to determine whether or not the machine has consciousness.
The test is complicated by the fact that the machine takes the form of a humanoid female and adopts the name Ava (appropriately, a variant of Eve). Alicia Vikander plays Ava in the same long tradition of unsettling, seemingly human characters as Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Artificial Intelligence or, more recently, Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin (to which this film is comparable in not insignificant ways). Ava is a character about whom the audience is never sure how to feel: like Caleb, we are placed in the position of determining for ourselves whether she has consciousness.
The question of consciousness is Ex Machina’s central dilemma, and Nathan, Caleb, and Ava philosophize at length about what it means to be sentient. Nathan insists that the trick is to show Caleb that Ava is a machine and see if he still thinks of her as a person. Ava, for her part, at least does an excellent job imitating sentience; she expresses fear for her own safety and displays a growing romantic interest in Caleb. Caleb is infatuated in turn, but Nathan sows seeds of doubt, asking, “Does Ava actually like you, or is she just pretending to like you?” Perhaps Ava does not have consciousness. Perhaps she just views Caleb as another puzzle to solve, and is manipulating his empathy for her own ends.
It turns out that Nathan chose Caleb specifically because of that deep-seated sense of empathy, and as the film progresses, empathy turns out to be key to its definition of humanity. It is a trait which Nathan himself clearly lacks, as he callously explains the countless breaches of personal privacy that he committed in order to program Ava. Ex Machina suggests that Nathan’s lack of empathy makes him no better than a machine – and thus, as Ava and Nathan both seek to use Caleb for their own purposes, the pawn becomes the only really human piece on the board.
Dishearteningly, though, Ex Machina suggests that decent humans are not always able to resist the subterfuge of the heartless machines. Caleb is not perfect, and in the end, both Nathan and Ava are able to outsmart and outmaneuver him. Tellingly, Caleb’s weakness stems from his attraction to Ava, who uses her sexuality as a diversion tactic – a tactic to which Caleb is unfortunately susceptible. His initially scientific observation slowly metamorphoses into voyeurism as he becomes more and more infatuated, and in a stinging scene, he asks Nathan if her appearance was based on his pornography preferences. Caleb’s culturally perpetuated view of women proves to be the fatal lapse in his humanity – and a revelation in the third act makes the idea of the objectification of women frighteningly literal. Caleb’s fundamental decency is undermined and stamped out by a culture that does not value empathy.
In the end, the creator paves the path to his own destruction at the hands of his creations. Ava kills Nathan and traps Caleb in the facility before escaping into the real world – a world where she blends right into the crowd. Ex Machina’s final image is its final damning statement on the lack of empathy in modern culture. In a world without God – a world where no one really knows anyone else – what is the difference between a human and a machine?