Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” an elegant sci-fi fantasy about artificial intelligence, plays mind games of great intricacy while appealing, I’m happy to report, to our baser instincts. That’s no small achievement. At one moment the movie has us guessing about the motives of Ava, a beautiful robot played hypnotically by Alicia Vikander. (What she’s up to could have profound implications for humanity.) At another we’re transfixed by the robo-erotic spectacle of Ava removing her leg warmers ever so slowly from her high-tech legs. The whole production is no small achievement. Sizzlingly smart and agreeably sententious, Mr. Garland’s film transcends some all-too-human imperfections with gorgeous images, astute writing and memorably strong performances.
The setting is the mostly subterranean mountain retreat of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of an Internet search company that dwarfs Google in its wealth and global reach. When a visitor to San Simeon asked William Randolph Hearst how much land surrounded the property, Hearst is reputed to have said, “Do you know Rhode Island?” When a visitor to Nathan’s pad asks a helicopter pilot how soon they’ll get there, the pilot says they’ve been flying over the estate for the past two hours. That suggests a property the size of Colorado, and a grandiosity which proves to be more amusing than off-putting.
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Oscar Isaac plays Nathan as a hipster tech mogul; it’s a big performance distilled into a dense one. Nathan is prickly in his narcissism, scarily eccentric, hyperverbal when he chooses to be but mostly enigmatic. Domhnall Gleeson is the visitor, Caleb Smith. A bright young programmer in Nathan’s company, Caleb has won an office contest in which the supposed grand prize is a one-week hangout with the boss. In fact, Caleb has been chosen to serve as the human participant in a Turing test, a term you may recognize as the concept behind the title of “The Imitation Game.”
Oversimply put, the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing devised the test as an indirect measure of whether a machine can think. The computer, or program, passes the test only by imitating a human so convincingly that a human judge—Caleb in this case—can’t tell if he’s dealing with a machine or a fellow homo sapiens. The test in “Ex Machina” is too odd for Turing to have foreseen. Instead of confronting a neutral intermediary like a monitor, or a printer, Caleb finds himself face to face with Ava, a robot with an angelic face, a breathy voice, full breasts, womanly hips and glowing orbs in her transparent torso. Instead of Caleb’s first comment to Nathan being something along the lines of “How in God’s name did you ever build such a thing?”, the programmer confines himself to earnest questions and observations concerning Eva’s A.I., as if her mechanisms weren’t miraculous as well.