Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a prize. He entered a contest to spend a week with one of the world's great technological innovators, a tycoon who has invented some of the most advanced electronics yet seen - and owns the company he works for. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is that man, but to reach him Caleb must travel to his personal home cum laboratory which is in the middle of a picturesque wilderness, a helicopter journey that has him set down in a field and asked to find the way in. He does that soon enough, and at the door to the complex he is given a special pass card that will open certain doors, though others remain closed. Then it is the man himself he meets, who breaks off from exercising to greet his guest - but what is Caleb here to see?
Alex Garland had distinguished himself in genre movies with a number of successful scripts, even if he was accused of liberally borrowing from other sources and adapting them to his own ends, though there was nothing especially unusual about that, and he delivered them with an intelligence that would often have them rise above their inspirations, or at least head off in an equally intriguing direction. Ex Machina was his directorial debut, and rather than crafting some big, splashy effects-filled adventure, he opted to keep it low key, all the better for his ideas to play out in an intimate venue rather than packing in the car chases and explosions, of which there were none. Yet it could be that by doing so, he showed up his limitations.
With its Spartan set design there was a tone of pure logic at work in this, not apparent in the first place but more obvious as the plot drew on; initially we think the two men are operating on a emotional, non-scientific level, though that is revealed not to be the case by the twist ending. What Nathan has cooked up in his isolated retreat is an actual android which he claims can pass the Turing Test, the ultimate demonstration that a machine has achieved consciousness when it can convince - or fool - a human that they are conversing with a living personality. Here's the first snag: can you think of any filmmaker who would present an artificial intelligence that wouldn't pass the Turing Test?
It would be a letdown if the supercomputer that had achieved sentient thought processes simply got caught in a loop or kept making blunders that exposed it as a sham, wouldn't it? So naturally Nathan's pet project is going to be convincing, in the tradition of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey which Garland cannot resist referencing, though what he adds to the mix is to make the A.I. a fembot. She is Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, the Swedish rising star, decked out in a fancy see-through look to render her that bit more otherworldly, though the actress managed a neat balance between the slightly off-kilter and the tentative moves towards a recognisable persona that could pass as a human. But what would be the ultimate test for Nathan to be satisfied?
What is this thing you Earthmen call love, Captain? Basically it seems the manipulative supermind of Nathan's will not be content until his guest is, if not in love with Ava, then certainly wants to see if she's fully functional in a sexual manner, and there are times when we wonder if she's flirting with him to demonstrate just that. However, there is another image Garland returns to over and over, and that is the prison imagery of Ava trapped in her cell, only talking to Caleb through the clear screen between them, suggesting slyly that either she may be dangerous and is best kept away from the public, or that she is unjustly incarcerated and needs to be set free to see that fairness done. And we all know how most prison movies end, don't we? No matter that there was an undercurrent of pondering over how men treat women they are attracted to, the gender politics were a little too removed from reality to ring true, leaving your common or garden Frankenstein retelling which may be icy cool in its realisation, but we all know how that ends too. Electro-music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.