(S)EX MACHINA, by Rob Williams (FILM REVIEW)
Director Alex Garland’s debut film EX MACHINA is at once a riveting Hitchcock’ian meditation on the human/machine relationship and a misogynistic tale of men and the women they dismember. Garland begins his story by introducing the audience to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who finds himself selected by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his company CEO, to assess the AI (artificial intelligence) worth of humanoid “Ava” (Alicia Vikander). Garland sets these Caleb/Ava sessions deep in the beautiful but remote “helicopter accessible only” Norwegian wilderness, where Nathan’s lab/HQ – sparse, secure, and oddly sinister – serves as a claustrophobic contrast to the sublime Scandinavian backdrop – all lush forest, craggy cliffs, and magnificent waterfalls.
Garland proves skillful at quickly building his story’s suspense through plenty of tight shots, much misdirection, hidden cues, and lots of quirky 20th century references to pop culture. Questions soon emerge. What does Nathan really want of Caleb? (“Don’t trust Nathan,” cautions Ava to Caleb when the power unexpectedly (?) cuts out during one of their many “sessions.”) Is AI Ava really emotionally attracted to Caleb, or is she just built and programmed that way? (Turns out Oscar may have designed her by riffing off of Caleb’s porn profile, easily extracted through corporate web data mining). And what is up with Nathan’s mute Japanese servant, or the several mutilated robotically naked exo-skins stored in Nathan’s classified closets?
Garland casts his film well, with Gleeson playing the audience’s surrogate stand-in with the right mix of open-eyed skepticism and genuine curiosity; Isaac as the brilliantly eccentric if slightly mad Dr “Dude” Moreau character, and Vikander bringing both her ballerina training and acting chops to Ava’s role, exhibiting a believable balance of cyborg/human characteristics. But, as my female friends have pointed out, creating “Ava” as a guileless sexbot’esque teenager distracts from Garland’s deeper questions about AI/human relations, questions that might be more provocative if Ava and Caleb did more than simply flirt with one another. Worse, perhaps, is Isaac’s mad scientist fetish for fabricating AI women to satisfy him; the latent misogyny and spooky behavior he implicitly exhibits as he turns sexual satisfaction into physical violence against his fembots in EX MACHINA hits you in the face.
While Garland’s haunting film is mesmerizing as a mystery/horror story, then, it falls down in its effort to raise larger questions about how artificial intelligence, once unleashed, can be hard to put back in the bottle. “We have become Death, the shatterer of Worlds,” muses Caleb to Nathan early on in the film, quoting A Bomb co-inventor Robert Oppenheimer’s famous channeling of a line from the Bhagavad Gita.
Maybe, and if so, how sad that AI in Garland’s story simply reifies the same old tired gendered stereotypes. Director Spike Jones did AI better last year in “Her,” and his brilliant decision to cast Scarlet Johannsen as a disembodied AI voice who falls in love pushed audiences to think (and feel) the possibilities and perils of the AI/human relationship much more deeply and intimately than Garland does here, despite the darkly entertaining ride EX MACHINA provides along the way.