Thomas Berger’s final novel, “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” (2004), might serve as the basis for a sequel to writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” a coolly cerebral sci-fi tale that really isn’t all that inventive but nonetheless casts quite a spell. While Berger related in crisply humorous tones how his titular being fared in the outside world, bypassing her origin pretty quickly, Garland’s focus is precisely on her creation and the intellectual and practical ramifications that the emergence of artificial intelligence necessarily involves.
The audience surrogate—after a fashion—in Garland’s script is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at Bluebook, described as the world’s largest Internet search engine (happily not called Bloogle here). He’s announced as the winner of a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive company head who invented Bluebook’s code while still a teen, at the boss’ huge Alaskan estate. When Caleb arrives at the isolated retreat, however, he’s told by Nathan—a heavy-drinking, bearded fellow who’s alternately friendly and brusque—that he’s been chosen for a specific purpose: to conduct a “Turing test” on Nathan’s greatest project—Ava (Alicia Vikander)—to determine whether she (or it) is demonstrably the world’s first android capable of both learning and feeling—of behavior, in other words, that would be considered indistinguishable from that of a human being.
In the hands of the CGI artists supervised by Andrew Whitehurst, Ava is truly a visual marvel—with a face covered with a wonderfully expressive skin-like substance but otherwise (except for feet and hands) a glistening robot with flashing lights within a metallic skeleton. Caleb’s job is to enter into conversation with her, separated by a glass wall, and through the discussions appraise the success of Nathan’s godlike experiment. The script is divided into his seven “sessions” with Ava, conducted as Nathan watches through his ever-present monitoring system.
But there’s an anomaly in the procedure—periodic interruptions of power at the facility that even Nathan can’t explain. Ava takes advantage of them to whisper warnings to Caleb about Nathan’s trustworthiness, and concerns about her own fate if she fails the test: she plants seeds of doubt in Caleb, exacerbated by Nathan’s increasingly volatile and unpredictable mood swings. The poor fellow even questions which of them is actually being tested, leading him to take a razor blade to his own arm to prove that he’s not a machine, and to explore the off-limits areas of the place to find out what Nathan is hiding. The only other resident, Nathan’s mute Japanese companion Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), with whom—as one startling sequence demonstrates—he can spontaneously boogie with abandon, becomes part of the puzzle as well, particularly in the narrative’s concluding twist.
Truth to tell, while Garland, production designer Mark Digby, cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Mark Day and set decorator Michelle Day work skillfully together to create a world of stark futuristic sterility and an atmosphere of understated tension, “Ex Machina” isn’t doing anything terribly new. Basically it’s a modernized version of the Frankenstein story, with a mad scientist creating a living entity he can’t ultimately control, accompanied by questions regarding robotics and artificial intelligence that have been raised repeatedly in movies from “Metropolis” to “Demon Seed” to “Blade Runner” to “A.I.” to “I, Robot” to “Her” to “Lucy.” Of course each link in this chain can add technological advancements the earlier ones lacked to the narrative, and “Ex Machina” does so; but those are basically cosmetic alterations to what a fairly preordained plot.
The film is, however, made more than watchable (if not truly thought-provoking) not only by its look but by its cast, especially Isaac and Vikander. As Nathan, the chameleon actor resembles a cross between Zachary Quinto and Mark Ruffalo, a bearded, bearlike man far different from the stereotype of the geeky tech genius that Jesse Eisenberg, for example, captured so crisply in “The Social Network.” But he projects the supreme arrogance and confidence of such a Silicon Valley master of the universe, an air of cocky omnipotence characteristic of a man who believes himself totally in control. He provides the spark that the wordy script (made no less verbose by Garland’s very deliberate pacing) desperately needs. Vikander has far less opportunity for flamboyance, but her precise work is physically impressive, and she certainly proves an alluring presence even when mostly obscured by CGI overlapping. Though Gleeson has the thankless responsibility of playing a slightly dense fellow at a loss about whom to believe, he captures Caleb’s desperate desire to do the right thing with an appropriately awkward mien.
Mizuno makes a strong impression as well, positively oozing mystery.
“Ex Machina” could have used more of the humor that Berger found in his tale of an artificial woman—except for some welcome moments when Nathan cuts loose, it takes itself very seriously indeed. But its eerily subdued approach works sufficiently to make it, if not a sci-fi classic, a more than respectable addition to a fairly crowded genre.