What is consciousness? Can a machine be granted consciousness by its creator? Ex Machina explores these issues in the sprawling, yet claustrophobic mansion of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the computer genius who created Bluebook, the fictional tech company that is a mash-up of Facebook and Google.
Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young programmer at Bluebook, wins a company-wide contest to spend a week with the reclusive billionaire on his remote estate. It is immediately clear upon his arrival that something is not quite right about Nathan. The estate is empty except for a scantily-clad Japanese servant who speaks no English, and the isolation seems to have taken its toll on a man who must have already spent much of his life creating barriers between himself and the rest of us, who truthfully are just not smart enough to keep up with him.
There is something of The Heart of Darkness running through Ex Machina. Nathan hasn’t “gone native”, but insulated by the bubble of his immense wealth, he has created a world in which he rules absolutely, and it’s taken a toll on his sanity.
Nathan reveals that he has been working on artificial intelligence and that the contest was a cover to get Caleb to come to the estate to test the machine — a robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Craig’s task is to interact with her over the week and determine if she passes the Turing Test. Ava bowls him over in their first meeting, her language capabilities astonishing him. As the week goes on, Nathan’s erratic behaviour becomes more disturbing, and Caleb begins to consider the ethics of keeping a conscious being (even one you created) a prisoner. As Craig and Ava’s relationship develops, a psychosexual element begins to overlay all their interactions. Is it Ava’s consciousness expressing itself, or has Nathan programmed everything in some kind of sick experiment?
Oscar Isaac brings a slightly unhinged, unpredictable quality to Nathan that provides much of the tension in the film, even though the interactions between Ava and Craig appear to be the linchpin of the story. There is one scene in which Nathan puts on disco music (flashing lights and all) and goes into a carefully choreographed dance routine with the Japanese servant girl. The scene is equal parts hilarious and deeply unsettling. Nathan’s mind, his thoughts, have shaped the world they inhabit — he created Ava. The mansion is a sort of post-modern Garden of Eden. The Fall is coming, but we can’t quite tell who is the Serpent.
I enjoyed Ex Machina. It is a deliberate, mature film that manages to explore the ethics of AI in a compelling manner. It is also a well-executed psychological thriller that manages to surprise.