This review contains spoilers for the ending of Ex Machina.
Ex Machina is a movie which could make an excellent psychological experiment of itself. It's one I think that functions as something of a Rorshach test for its audience as virtually everyone comes away with a different interpretation of the movie based on what they think of the characters are trying to represent. If anything.
The premise of the movie is minimalist and effective: Tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) selects a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend the weekend at his isolated high-tech ranch. Once there, the billionaire explains he's developed an A.I. that he wishes to subject to the Turing Test. The A.I. turns out to be an obviously cybernetic but very beautiful gynoid (i.e. a female android) named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the weekend, the programmer becomes enamored of the gynoid and must decide whether to go against his boss to help her escape.
|Beautiful and inhuman at once.|
Thankfully, the movie also contains a plot which which works entirely on its own merits without needing to be about anything. If you're in the mood for a cerebral tech-heavy film about A.I. and personification then this is it. If you want to know more about the movie then be warned SPOILERS will follow. Okay? Good.
A lesser movie would and could have gone with the "White Knight" narrative where the programmer rescues the gynoid and they live happily ever after. This is a much more distressing movie where the motives of everyone are suspect and what is really being said is left the imagination even as the credits roll. Indeed, some people have been upset about the movie because it didn't end in the way they expected it to. How did it end? Well, as the movie is winding down, we discover Nathan didn't invite Caleb to determine whether Ava could pass the Turning Test or not but to do a variation of the "A.I. Box" experiment to figure out if she could convince Caleb to help her escape.
|Can Aya feel anything even for her own kind?|
Feminist interpretations of this ending have been that it either is a positive or negative portrayal as they take it as a matter of fact that Ava is a woman or at least meant to be one. That Ava, sensing Caleb just wants her as his fantasy girlfriend, abandons him to become her own hero. Less charitable readings take the view the director saw Ava as an inherently deceptive and dangerous character with her desire to be free of patriarchal control. It's an easy read to give the movie since Nathan has created his A.I. all in the shape of beautiful woman and is implied to use them for sex. There's allusions to Bluebeard, human trafficking, and the "bro" culture of Silicon Valley. Indeed, long has the gynoid been a symbol of male fantasies of ultimate control ranging from Galatea to Metropolis' infamous fake Maria.
However, the alternate ending of the movie changed the entire context of "Ava" as it revealed she didn't have human senses at all but simply viewed the world through an ultraviolet interpretative matrix. That she was as far from a human being as a whale or a toaster, possibly not even any more sentient than a machine programmed to escape. Caleb and Nathan both let their guard down because they consider her to be a helpless creature but she's an incredibly intelligent (super-intelligent in fact) quantum computer without feeling or empathy. Its motivations are wholly incomprehensible because it was made from Facebook and code not biology or God.
|Is her face her face or just camouflage?|
Famously, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner actually have opposite morals. Blade Runner is about Replicants being the persecuted slaves and dehumanized oppressed peoples of the world. The narrative is squarely on the side of Roy Batty and it's only by abandoning his role as a Blade Runner does Decker achieve any humanity.
|Her most real-girl appearance is at her most inhuman.|
One element of the movie I enjoyed due to the fact I think it's entirely deliberate is the fact Caleb doesn't really ever think about rescuing Kyoko and more or less ignores her for the entire movie. She's a mute Japanese woman kept imprisoned by Nathan and possibly serves as his sex slave yet he only becomes interested in her struggle when he finds out she's an android too. Even then, he's mostly interested in Ava and only because she's expressed a sexual interest in him.
|Is this her soul? Does she have one?|
The acting is stupendous with Alicia Vidkander doing an amazing job portraying the innocent and coquettish Ava in just the way to make us wonder if that's just what the machine is simulating. Caleb is an amazing Anti-Hero and that's in the classical sense where he never makes enough choices to be a hero of any kind. He's just a dude who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. With Nathan we never figure out if he is a monster or if he was playing one to help his test along--but it says something about the guy he chooses to live in a completely isolated compound surrounded only by robots.
This is a minimalist movie and one which I very much enjoyed. It's very much one you have to pay attention to and what you take from it will be affected by whether or not you think Ava is a person, a machine, or a person who is a machine and wholly alien to us.