Lawrence Toppman

‘Ex Machina’ asks where humanity begins

Alicia Vikander stars as Ava in A24's “Ex Machina.”
Alicia Vikander stars as Ava in A24's “Ex Machina.” A24

Finding an “Ex Machina” among the film flotsam of late April is the equivalent of going to a sale at a farmhouse and discovering a first edition of Ray Bradbury in an apple crate.

Distributors usually fill the last weeks before the summer rush carrying junk down from the attic. But Alex Garland’s directorial debut ranks among my favorite movies this year.

He has spent most of 15 years writing sophisticated science fiction scripts for other people: Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later,” Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go.”

He tops that work with a more complex, more open-ended script about a genius who creates artificial intelligence, a young programmer he invites to interact with it, and the mysterious robot who begins to acquire human desires.

The film asks questions we may face this century. Do we have the right to endow a mechanical creation with the ability to think for itself – and, if we do, must it remain under our control? How human does a machine become when it acquires the ability to feel, not just to solve problems?

The title comes from the phrase “deus ex machina,” which means “god from the machine.” It’s now used dismissively for endings to stories that seem sudden and false. But the ancient Greeks used it to show that, no matter how much control we think we have over an event, God (or the gods) can intervene and take it away from us.

Garland leaves out the word “God.” His world has a man behaving like a god instead – and sure enough, the machine he’s created starts to spin out of his control.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a billionaire who invented the world’s most popular search engine, invites technophile Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his mountain retreat for an experiment. He wants Caleb to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot who has been given a plasticine face and hands to make her seem more like a person.

In daily encounters, Caleb and Ava take each other’s measure. She longs to escape Nathan’s bonds; he longs to find out what kinds of connections they might make, emotionally or perhaps even physically. (Perversely, Nathan has made it possible for her to be sexually active.)

Meanwhile, a spooky Japanese servant who seems to be Nathan’s carnal toy (Sonoya Mizuno) glides silently in and out, with the camera highlighting her in many scenes. As the story twists toward its finale, the four come together in an unexpected way.

Garland maintains an eerie atmosphere from first scene to last. Nathan drinks lots of beer, dances to disco music and calls Caleb “dude,” but his unwavering stare and unpredictable comments make him unsettling. Cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby make his fortress of solitude sterile and creepy, like the man.

Gleeson and Vikander both project innocence to balance Isaac’s sinister casualness. We know the billionaire’s playing games – it’s impossible to trust anything he says – but we never fully know Caleb’s agenda until the end.

Ava remains the easiest to understand: She simply wants freedom. In Vikander’s eyes we read curiosity, an insatiable desire to learn about herself and the widest possible swath of the world. That makes Ava the most human creature of all.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

REVIEW

‘Ex Machina’

Thoughtful and disturbing science fiction about the relationship between humans and robots with artificial intelligence.

A- STARS: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander.

WRITER-DIRECTOR: Alex Garland.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.

RATING: R (graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence).

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