Review: Ex Machina – When the Top Boss Calls, Do Not Answer!

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the opportunity to spend a week with the “Top Boss” is generally not a very good risk/reward scenario–in any scenario. Given the choice of buying stock in Amazon versus spending a week with Jeff Bezos (assuming I were working at Amazon), I’d take the stock any day. Of course, I’d be missing out on the slim chance that, in that week with Bezos, I’d be admitted to his inner circle, with all the attendant rights and privileges. And wealth. But really, the risks are much greater. Starting with the fact that the top boss has no desire to spend any meaningful time with me, and so the entire week becomes a charade of sorts. There is also the distinct possibility that I may end up not liking the top boss at all. And yet, because I am in this charade, I still have to kowtow to him (let’s be honest, it’s always a him—at least in today’s world) and it’s ultimately pretty distasteful, if not downright degrading because this is, after all, the person who is giving me money every two weeks to pay the rent, buy food and clothes, and have fun outside of the time I have already given him.

Perhaps the risk/reward calculation would be increased if I had been duped into spending a week with the top boss through a fake competition within the company, the lottery prize being an entire week with the top boss at his super-secret, military-esque compound. Or perhaps the risk/reward would be ratcheted up again if the top boss had specifically selected me to help him with a top-secret research project. And finally, perhaps the risk/reward would be worth it if the top boss were one of the most intelligent persons in the world, having written the code—at age thirteen!—for the most successful search engine in the world.

Perhaps… There are a lot of good adjustments in the last paragraph. But even with all those, I’d still go out on a limb and take the stock instead of the week with the top boss. But then, let’s remember (or let’s clarify) that I’m not Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in the movie Ex Machina. Caleb is a talented young programmer working at the Blue Book Company, the most successful search engine on this planet, and Caleb, believe it or not, has won a competition within the company to spend a week with the top boss.

This top boss has become a recluse of vast sorts and lives on an immense northern hemisphere estate (the film was shot somewhere in Norway) in a heavily electronically secured outpost that is nowhere near anyone, or anyplace, else. It is, nevertheless, subject to random power failures, which the top boss doesn’t like but has found ways to deal with. This top boss is also not your standard Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos egomaniac terror at the office. No, this top boss has taken himself out of society to create the first real and realistic artificial intelligent (AI) being. And this top boss—I’ll introduce him now as Nathan Bateman (played almost too intelligently by Oscar Isaac)—is smart enough and has made enough money in this world to think that he can be successful at this project.

Why does he need Caleb Smith? Simply—he needs someone who is smart enough (but perhaps not as smart as he is) to validate his AI. He needs Caleb to see if his AI is capable of feeling, of consciousness.

Nathan’s AI has a name: Ava (played very smartly by Alicia Vikander). She also has a gender: female. But she is very clearly a robot. When we first see her, there are visible silver innards in her torso, biceps, forearms, thighs, and calves while the remainder is covered by an undulating silver packing, almost like reflective fish scales. Moreover, we hear her gears whirring very softly when she walks or kneels down. But Ava, in spite of being a robot, is also, very clearly, a feminine robot exuding a tantalizing robotic female sexuality. Her voice is captivating. And Caleb is captivated.

But first, there are the formalities. Even before he can see her, the top boss asks him to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to participate in his very cutting edge research. Understandably, Caleb is put out. But the thought of not participating in the most exciting research project ever is too tantalizing to pass up, especially with the top boss telling him that he will regret not signing the NDA a year later. And so, with a few strokes of a pen, Caleb is in. Hook, line, and sinker. Let the games begin.

Ex Machina is a very clever movie, tightly written and inhabited by three main characters—Nathan, Caleb, and Ava—in a closed environment. (There is a fourth silent and haunting character—an Asian woman (or is she AI?) who can’t speak English and is a servant, and occasionally more, to Nathan). It is not the standard Agatha Christie And Then There Were None closed-room mystery, but instead a slow-burning psychological thriller that smolders for a while and then erupts into a brilliant flame. After the initial set-up, which is fast and efficient, the plot lags a little. But it is definitely worth watching the smoldering fire to the end.

Much acclaim has gone to Alicia Vikander as Ava, and even more to Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman. Both of these are well-deserved, if not well-liked. Domhall Gleeson (Caleb) has gotten more mixed reviews. But let us not forget that he plays the part of the stunned, and yet most promising, mass-market employee to fulfill Nathan’s dreams. In fact, he is stunned. And he plays the corporate, but thinking, robot just fine.

Ex Machina raises so many questions about artificial (versus real) intelligence, corporate surveillance, power, gender, and sexuality, that it becomes impossible to treat them all fairly in this movie. But the fact that all those heavy questions were raised, and can still sit with you days after you have seen the movie, are a testament to the story, the script, and the acting.

After the final scene, Ex Machina leaves us with many thoughts as we walk out of the theater, but the most unsettling one, perhaps, is the thought that artificial intelligence is a force to be reckoned with, and actually, it may not be that artificial at all.