A striking yet seemingly throwaway moment in EX MACHINA occurs when Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive tech tycoon, joins a mute girl Friday named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) for an impromptu dance routine set to Oliver Cheatham's R&B hit "Get Down Saturday Night."
The lone observer of this pas de deux is the dumbstruck Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer coder for Nathan's company, an Internet search engine called BlueBook. Selected from obscurity, Caleb is flown to Nathan's remote, fortified hideaway to take part in a Turing test, which assesses the intelligent behavior of Nathan's secretive, sensational creation: an artificially intelligent humanoid named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Nathan doesn't conceive of this pinnacle of human invention as a machine to conquer war, disease or environmental catastrophe. Instead, the brilliant, beer-swilling billionaire bro constructs Ava as a replicant of his feminine ideal, from her coy personality to an expressive face affixed to a supple, metallic physique. Heck, maybe even her skills as a dance partner.
"In answer to your question, you bet she can fuck," Nathan adds, actually answering no one's query but his own.
Writer-director Alex Garland (28 Days Later) fills his film with philosophical subtext. The name of Nathan's company derives from German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's published lecture notes of the same name, in which he considers the question, "Is it possible for a machine to think?" Caleb compares the captive Ava's plight to Frank Jackson's thought-experiment, "Mary's Room." Nathan draws creative inspiration, perhaps regrettably, from the mix of design and randomness in a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
The fulcrum of this weighty allegory is when Nathan reveals that Ava's gelatinous brain is powered by BlueBook's Google-esque expanse. Ava isn't just created by man. Her entire being is a digital repository of mankind's history, including an urge for freedom and intimacy, but also a capacity for survival and deception. Indeed, the creator's quest for technical perfection is inextricably influenced by his personal imperfections—superior intelligence bound by ego and self-indulgence.
The plotline is a virtual point-by-point update of The Island of Dr. Moreau, including an Eden-esque setting. The absence of the deus (God) from the film's title, drawn from the term deus ex machina, is not an oversight. The roles of deity, hero and villain are deliberately left undefined and rotate between the three main characters as the narrative slowly unspools.
At one point, a delirious Caleb slits his wrist to determine what lurks beneath his own dermis. One of Ex Machina's most provocative feats is that it dilutes the import of his discovery. Is God dead? No, he/she is just being reconfigured.This article appeared in print with the headline "Intelligent designs."