HAL Meets Samantha

Ex Machina
(UK, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Alicia Vikander as Ava, in Ex Machina. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
HAL meets Samantha in Ex Machina. This sci-fi by director Alex Garland is the love child of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Her with its musing on artificial intelligence, love, and connection in the days of impersonal communication. Machines are becoming smarter and humans are becoming stupider, so it’s inevitable that the brainwaves of man and machine will outpace one another at some point in time. If Dave asks HAL to open the pod bay doors, then Ava, the AI being of Ex Machina, asks Caleb, the human, to open his heart to her. A heart and the doorway between safety and outer space are the same: they’re both portals to oblivion if humans don’t control them smartly.

Call it heavy-handed, but that’s essentially the conundrum in which Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself when he wins a bizarre contest with the grand prize of a week’s vacation at the home of his boss. Caleb, who ranges between 24 and 26 depending on the press materials, is an overconnected techno geek saturated in gizmos and IM—just look at how he spreads the news of his win via his phone—and Ava just happens to be his Samantha, like the operating system that seduces Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in the Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance Her. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander (ironically Gleeson’s love interest in Anna Karenina), is even more sophisticated than Samantha is because she sports more than just a smoky, sexy voice.

Ava is the brainchild of Caleb’s cartoonish boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac, surprisingly off-key here) who makes advanced AI prototypes in his isolated mansion that belongs in a James Bond movie. (It has dense woodland and a glacier!) Nathan invites Caleb to test Ava, but Caleb unsurprisingly becomes the subject of the test when Ava proves to be the Hannibal Lecter to his Clarice Starling in their game of quid pro quo. Ava has all the right answers as she responds to Caleb’s inquiries with better insight and nuance than one finds on Wikipedia and the Google. She whirs and even laughs a little to show that there’s more to her insides than what appears through the wiry mesh of her robotic shell.

Garland’s creation of Ava is cutting-edge sci-fi at its best, especially for a film of comparatively modest origins such as Ex Machina. The creation of the artificial intelligence is more advanced and sophisticated than anything that’s come before it, for the seamless fusion of robotic traits, sights, sounds, and movements with Vikander’s own body and features is most impressive. Garland and his visual effects team create an enticingly real robot that asks the audience to look at Ava’s shapely body—complete with breasts, butt, and awkward camel toe—and gaze at her insides that flicker with light and life, and ultimately ask at what point robots end and humans begin. The film perfectly anthropomorphizes Ava without letting the visual composition/gimmick overwhelm the film (ex: the recent Andy Serkis affairs) or without relying on a disembodied voice to create the same suspension of disbelief that fuels HAL and Samantha as AI enigmas.

Ex Machina only ever feels real when Vikander is onscreen. Her performance commands the film by playing upon the audience’s ambiguous perception of Ava as a robot or as a human, and as a lover or a villain. Her movements and mannerisms reconcile aspects of both facets as Ava’s behaviour is calculated precisely to make one speculate on the authenticity of her actions: does Caleb witness a sophisticated algorithm at play, or are these emotions genuine? Vikander computes Ava’s reactions to Caleb’s questions with both the programmed precision of an OS like Samantha—she says as ‘yes’ quickly and politely as a search engine returns a hit—and brings an innocence to her character that draws the audience and Caleb alike into the charm of this being their seeing for the first time. Her restrained emotion, finally, that smile she holds back behind Ava’s fleshy mask, gives a delicate hint that Ava harbours either a soul or a heart of steel.

Ex Machina sometimes feels like a hopeless situation, though, since the humans feel far more inorganic than the robot does. Gleeson isn’t especially compelling (but in all fairness, Vikander outshone him in Anna Karenina too) nor does Caleb’s wide-eyed embrace of the preposterous scenario convince. The plotting of Ex Machina strains credibility as Ava seduces Caleb almost instantly. Every encounter between the humans, Caleb and Nathan, draws Ava’s appeal into the greater web of cultural oversaturation in media and technology, and the perils that go along with it as Nathan casually extols his global data-mining with the help of smartphones and iThings everywhere that offer cameras, microphones, and Big Brother access to information. Communication is a dangerous thing, and Ex Machina heavy-handedly uses our plugged-in culture to make Ava’s appeal more urgent, albeit effectively so. Caleb, without any real evidence of human connection in his own life, forgets how to distinguish between human-to-human and human-to-android communication, and the film succeeds more often than not by turning the tables on human intelligence by fusing the traits of both Samantha and HAL into an advanced AI love interest that could bring the end of humankind.

The film marks a notable directorial debut for Garland after scripting a range of genre fair from Never Let Me Go, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. Ex Machina is handsomely made, sleek and sophisticated, and it shows lots of promise as Garland shows a hand for combining grand effects with admirable restraint. Ex Machina dazzles with its visuals, but it’s ultimately a philosophical work rather than a VFX showpiece.

Despite the impressive packaging, however, Ex Machina recycles through a lot of material that Garland has already engaged with in his previous scripts. There’s nothing really new here, although Garland presents a sleek production that looks and sounds impressive: Ex Machina is essentially the Apple Watch of the festival circuit as it renders sublime what audiences have seen before, even in Garland’s own filmography. As a meditation on the soul, it doesn’t quite stir the heart and mind like Never Let Me Go does; as a thriller, it falls short of the visionary terror of 28 Days Later. As a modest musing on the limits of human intelligence, however, it’s an unassumingly provocative film, and as an update on some of cinema’s best AI beings, it’s a fine meeting of the minds.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Ex Machina is now playing in theatres from Mongrel Media.

How did Ava seduce you?