There’s a lot of talk about thought experiments in Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s hyphenate debut, and it’s clear that the film fancies itself a thought experiment. Thought experiments, though, are not all created equal; according to Daniel Dennett, perhaps our greatest living philosopher, many well-known thought experiments are actually “boom crutches,” psychological traps that trigger intuitions which cloud good thinking rather than catalyze it. Among those boom crutches, in fact, is one of the thought experiments that is not only discussed in Ex Machina, but is lavishly woven into the film’s visual signatures, making me wonder if Ex Machina itself is nothing but a stylish, entertaining, 108-minute boom crutch.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for vampire squid search engine Bluebook, and wins a “staff lottery” that entitles him to a week hanging with the firm’s reclusive genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote mountain villa. All is not as it seems, however, and the real purpose of Caleb’s invitation is to perform a not-exactly-Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan created whose AI just might have achieved something indistinguishable human consciousness. Conversations about, like, deep things are had, twists are turned, you know the drill.
Ex Machina is executed flawlessly; anchored by four fantastic performances (a shout-out to Sonoya Mizuno, whose excellent work here is sure to go underheralded relative to the rest of the cast), the film has a confident swagger. It’s slick when it needs to be, but has an eye for sensitive moments; the sound design is impeccable (Ava sounds kind of like a soothing electric car), and interweaves the almost-ambient score with grace. The dialogue is uneven, but when its occasional sparkles give way to ponderousness or plodding melodramatic pauses, the pitch-perfect performances more than carry it.
Yet Ex Machina feels hollow. Avoiding spoilers as best I can, the film is smart enough to neatly anticipate certain audience expectations by integrating them into the characters’ own expectations, which too many films rarely do (and you have to wonder if Gleeson wasn’t cast in part due to his amazing performance in “Be Right Back,” the best episode BBC’s marvelous Black Mirror); yet it also writes itself into a corner. This was also the fatal flaw of Sunshine, an amazing film that Garland wrote, and Danny Boyle managed to pull off despite its third-act Hammer Horror spiral because he’s Danny Boyle. But Garland, despite his suaveness, isn’t Danny Boyle; and he’s also clearly not Isaac Asimov, because had he (or, I guess, Nathan) read his Asimov, Ex Machina would’ve ended in much different fashion, and probably much more interesting at that.
Indeed, Ex Machina is itself as much a deception as that woven throughout its various plots and angles, seeming to be a meditation on robot consciousness – like Metropolis, both Fritz Lang’s and Rintaro’s, A.I., Blade Runner, or Battlestar Galactica – or a movie about the rise of, or at least the danger of, malevolent machines, like The Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc. But despite its superficial similarity to those films, the story Ex Machina most resembles is actually Frankenstein. It’s a film about the arrogance playing God, except it has nothing very interesting to say about that. It also has nothing very interesting to say about intelligence or consciousness, artificial or otherwise, and despite of loaded imagery around sex and gender, the subtext there is also so thin it feels aggressively perfunctory.
Ex Machina is entertaining, but in the end almost all clever and no smart; its chosen moment to conclude, right before logic would dictate inevitable events which would leave the audience with a drastically different sense of meaning and context, demonstrates a dedication to the kind of magic tricks its characters repeatedly reference. Maybe Ex Machina really is the “hot assistant,” drawing our eyes away from its trickery; but trickery, in the end, may be all Ex Machina has to offer.