Love it or hate it (either response is defensible), “Ex Machina” is an exceptionally intelligent movie and that rare effort at science fiction that never degenerates into a) horror, b) action-adventure or c) futuristic fantasy. It is about science and hardly puts more than one toe in the pool of fiction.
The subject is artificial intelligence (AI) and there’s no fiction about that: it’s already here. The fiction is the prototype female robot that has been equipped with AI. She’s way realistic — definitely could pass for human.
And thereon hangs the plot. This super wealthy computer engineering genius, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), creates this astonishing fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and wants to put her to the test. The test is persuading an astute young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), that she is self-aware — the gold standard of AI achievement.
Complications ensue. First, Nathan is a sick SOB. Godlike in his ability to create “life,” he behaves like a god — an arrogant, contemptuous and hateful deity whose humanity leaks out while his creations gain theirs. He’s less Stephen Hawking than Dr. Frankenstein and less Dr. Frankenstein than Dr. Mengele.
The action all takes place within the spare, post-modern retreat Nathan maintains in an unnamed wilderness. Claustrophobia sets in early, but that ominous feeling of being penned in is intrinsic to the plot — we’re as confined as a robot.
The themes explored in a steady stream of conversations involving Nathan, Caleb and Ava are heavy but intellectually accessible. What does it mean to be human? Is the brain what differs us from the rest of creation? What happens if we create a brain? And at what point do the machines we operate start operating us?
All of which gives the impression that “Ex Machina” is plot-driven. It is but it ain’t. This excellent movie is equally character-driven. Sick puppy though he be, Nathan is brilliant. Caleb is our innocent Everyman (at least he starts out that way). Ava is wise and she knows a lie before it has even been spoken. And then there’s the spectral Kyoko (Sonoya Mizono), Nathan’s silent servant. Is she real? Is she as fragile as she looks?
A final observation: best special effects ever. Subtle, noiseless, un-show-offy and as near to magic as anything we’ve seen.