“Ex-Machina” Makes Artificial Intelligence “Scary-Sexy”
If you took HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and put him inside the body of the bathroom woman from “The Shining” (1980), you’d get Ava, the sleek, sultry artificial intelligence robot of “Ex Machina” (2015). The film itself lies somewhere between these two Kubrick movies, combining the claustrophobic horrors of the Overlook Hotel with the supercomputing callousness of HAL. Like Siri sexified, Ava epitomizes the male fantasy — an erotic subservient who deifies him — and the consequences of its fulfillment. Think “Her” (2013), but with a Samantha who would kill to be more than just a voice.
The road to Ava begins with a lowly milquetoast of a programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a week’s stay at his CEO’s secluded forest Xanadu. The creator of Bluebook, the world’s dominant search engine, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) combines Steve Jobs glasses with “Breaking Bad” anti-hero Walter White’s bald with a beard look, the unsettling blend of genius and psychopath. Like Dracula himself, Nathan overwhelms his guest in intellect and strength, barring most doors, especially one filled with sleeping prototypes. Soon Caleb is stuck inside this palatial labyrinth, only to become the lab-rat for the latest in Nathan’s line of Frankenstein’s monsters, Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander) eschews the flip-switch killer robot cliché and instead harbors the dormant potential of caged animal twitching for release, with Caleb as her bait. Over a series of “Silence of the Lambs” (1991)-esque Turing tests, Caleb observes Ava behind a highly monitored glass cage. These sessions reveal a mind less than human but more than robot — a naïve, prepubescent psyche desperate for human connection, possibly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She sketches and dresses up for Caleb like a sentient Barbie, slowly seducing him with catlike cunning. Ava soon discovers how to disable the security cameras, drowning the lab in red light as she warns Caleb to save her and mistrust Nathan. While dramatically unsettling at first, this device loses its potency with overuse, and could have been escalated more intensely.
The trapped trio enter into a dance macabre, with Caleb the hopeless marionette becoming more aware of his manipulators’ strings. Isaac and Vikander are deliciously unstable like the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat, ensnaring Caleb like a nascent Alice in a web of words, taunts and seductive smiles. From tormented folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) to belligerent immigrant “A Most Violent Year” (2014), Isaac now adds manic, inhuman genius to his acting bouquet. With Caleb, we become infected with paranoia, reading into Nathan’s inflections and Ava’s self-infantilization, unsure of the truth until Nathan delivers his villainous — and quickly ironic — “I got away with it, too” speech. After a couple more surprise twists, some bloodletting and “circuitletting,” “Ex Machina” comes full circle, with the helicopter picking up an uncanny new guest.
The title comes from the Latin phrase “deus ex machina” translated as “god from the machine,” and signifies a plot device that solves some of the film’s Gordian Knot for a writer. But there is no God when man becomes creator, inverting the cliche to “machina ex deo.” However, when the lines between man and machine vanish, with man slowly losing his hardwiring and machine developing superhuman cunning, we lose god and machine, and become as indistinguishable as our shadows.
“Ex Machina” adds a sexy, chrome finish to the robot takeover thriller genre, like “Alien” (1979) with a killer supermodel. But filmmakers are too hell-bent on these invasive species of machines, attacking like an electric Ebola. I think the real horror could be the documentary on the slow-burning effects of our phones and computers, like cancer mutating our attention spans and social responses. But we are not a good long-term planning species, so for the here and now, go see Ava go ex machina ad humanam.
“Ex Machina” is playing at The Nugget at 4:20 p.m. and 6:50 p.m.