How can you tell if a computer can think — not just pull from a programmed set of responses or rely on predictive algorithms, but actually make its own mental leaps and connections, and, perhaps, have a sense of self?
It's a thorny thing, to suss out intelligence, especially when you get into questions of what "intelligence" means, or the fact that we're still trying to understand how our own brains function. You might code an AI from scratch and literally crawl inside its workings, but there's no easy way to evaluate how well its man-made mind performs from within. Computer science pioneer Alan Turing, whose life was recently pummeled into a biopic-appropriate shape for the Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game, figured the best we could do is to go by external feedback. If an AI could pass for a person, with all of the obvious and ineffable cues by which we recognize and evaluate another human, then how could it not be seen as having a consciousness?
Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), the hero of novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland's cerebral, crystalline sci-fi directorial debut Ex Machina, is tasked with taking part in an unconventional Turing test. A programmer at BlueBook, an internet search giant that doesn't seem all that concerned with issues of good and evil, Caleb wins an employee raffle and is spirited away to a high-tech bunker on a remote but beautiful compound that's the home of his boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb's test subject is Ava (Alicia Vikander), and the catch is, there's no doubt she's a robot — a stunning one, delicately constructed out of transparent panels and glowing circuitry, crowned with an expressively pretty face. What Caleb has to figure out is if she's something more.
Ex Machina is the kind of heady sci-fi movie that's gotten eclipsed within the genre by space operas and shoot-em-ups — a talky thriller about big ideas, it has the aura of a futuristic fairy tale, one in which it's hard to tell who the villain is. The most obvious candidate is Nathan, the brilliant, bristly CEO who spends his days working on his inventions and his nights getting plastered, and who seems to be harboring all sorts of hidden agendas. Nathan's a very contemporary type of tech geek — a swaggering brogrammer of malleable morality in wifebeaters and a shaved head who impatiently tells a shell-shocked Caleb, "You're freaked out to be meeting me, to be having this conversation in this room in this moment. Can we just get past that — the whole employer-employee thing?"
There's definitely a bit of Bluebeard to Nathan, and not just in his aggressive facial hair. He lives in a castle — a low-slung building that's half huge windows looking out onto stunning landscapes (the movie was shot in Norway) and half windowless corridors filled with doors that Caleb may or may not be able to open. And Nathan's home is littered with dismembered pieces of his discarded women — all artificial, of course. In his lab, he hands an enchanted Caleb a brain like the one in Ava's head, made of structured gel and looking like it contains a miniature galaxy. Nathan eyes Caleb with open calculation, and Isaac, who's never not engrossing these days, plays him with the slinky physicality of a big cat prowling around its territory. He's unsettling in how frank he is about hiding things.
Ava would seem to be the captive princess in this fable, but she's a slippery character in her own right, pushing Caleb off balance in their talks together. She's kept behind glass like a zoo creature, but manages to get under Caleb's skin anyway, asking him with unabashed curiosity if he's attracted to her, putting on a dress and wig so that she looks indistinguishable from a human woman. Vikander gives Ava the slightest inhuman touches, even when she's dressed up — the birdlike tilt of her head, the cool assessment in her gaze when flirting with Caleb. And Caleb's unnerved by the fact that Ava seems to be seducing him, though what really galls him is that he's unable to tell if she means it, if it's part of the evaluation ("What will happen to me if I fail your test?" she asks). He has no idea if he should believe her pleas when she asks for help, eyes wide, voice throbbing with urgency.
And there's the crux of Ex Machina, its implacable heart — a Turing test measures not how human an AI might be, but how closely it's able to mimic human behavior. Nathan jokingly misquotes something Caleb says to him in order to compare himself to God, but Garland's movie digs into the arrogance of the assumption that a successful AI should be made in our image, reflecting our own internal makeup and values back at us. Ex Machina is a disquieting power struggle waged in terms of human weaknesses, refracted through gender.
The movie relentlessly objectifies Ava (as well as Nathan's non-English-speaking assistant/lover Kyoko, played by Sonoya Mizuno), the camera avidly roaming the contours of her body. Caleb, discovering he has access to computers in her room, watches her at night as she reclines on a couch. She's assessed in the style of a beautiful woman, but also in the style of beautiful design — just another elegant object in Nathan's gorgeous house. She's obviously artificial, but she still has an effect on Caleb, because she was designed to be appealing. And what bearing, the movie asks, does that objectification have if it's based on desires that were imposed on her, that have nothing to do with the enigma of that manufactured brain? Ava only becomes more of a mystery as Ex Machina goes on and grows more disturbing — she's a quantity impossible to sum up with any test.