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Ex Machina: Computer blues

Rating: ***1/2

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EX MACHINA
***1/2
DIRECTED BY Alex Garland
STARS Domhnall Gleason, Oscar Isaac

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (Photo: A24)
  • Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (Photo: A24)

They say that God is in the details, but he's conspicuously missing from the title of the new movie Ex Machina. Those two words are almost always employed in the term deus ex machina, yet the omission immediately signals that writer-director Alex Garland is armed and ready to play with any and all expectations.

Garland, the 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe finally making his directorial debut, has crafted a brainy beauty about a genius who dares to play God. In that respect, the story harkens back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel that — pay attention, Trivial Pursuit players — sports the often dropped subtitle The Modern Prometheus. That moniker could equally apply to a steady stream of scientists from the literary and cinematic worlds, and Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is but the latest of these arrogant inventors. Nathan has created the seemingly perfect robot, an A.I. he has named Ava (A Royal Affair's Alicia Vikander). But before Nathan deems his creation a success, Ava must be subjected to the Turing Test — yes, named after Alan Turing of The Imitation Game fame — which decrees that an interrogator must be unable to tell the difference in the responses given by an A.I. as opposed to those provided by a human.

To assist in the test is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason), a computer programmer randomly selected from all the employees at the search-engine conglomerate (BlueBook) created by Nathan. Joining Nathan at his remote mountain home, Caleb is tasked with spending one week communicating with Ava. But as the young man comes to know both Nathan and Ava, he begins to wonder if he's being used by the inventor, manipulated by his creation, or merely confused by his own growing feelings toward the artificial Ava.

Those unfortunates who feel that the trailer revealed all of the film's surprises (my own worry as well) can relax: Ex Machina is a deliriously twisty tale, with Garland always making sure to keep an additional trick up his sleeve. Essentially a three-person chamber piece (so when's the Broadway adaptation coming out?), the movie milks its desolate setting for maximum impact: Nathan's secluded house-cum-laboratory is cannily employed as its own self-contained petri dish, with existential quandaries being analyzed under Garland's morally tuned microscope. In its exploration of Ava and the extent to which she becomes worthy of human empathy even though she's technically a machine, the piece recalls not only Shelley but also Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner in film lingo) and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, particularly its repeated refrain of "Are we not men?" Audience loyalties shift throughout the picture: Caleb is likable yet occasionally irksome; Nathan is alternately chilly and inviting; and Ava is personable but also something of a question mark.

As the title hints, there's no heavy-handed deus ex machina device to conveniently end the story; instead, the players in this pas de trois are left to their own devices, all pirouetting toward a conclusion that's as unexpected as it is invigorating.

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