British filmmaker Alex Garland’s directorial debut “Ex Machina,” which screened at South by Southwest before opening this week, is a sleek, good-looking meditation on the nature of artificial intelligence, on what happens when we create robots that can pass for humans.
What does that mean for the robot? What does that mean for us? Do these things have a soul or what?
It’s a theme explored in film many times before, most famously, perhaps, in “Blade Runner.”
Garland — the writer of such genre cult classics as “28 Days Later,” “Dredd” and “The Beach” — is to be praised for wasting no time; the audience is dumped right into this bravish new world. Within the first minute, we learn that a coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a week at the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of BlueBook, the search engine company for which Caleb works.
Nathan is wealthy, an obvious member of the .0001 percent, the sort who lives by himself (save for a silent servant named Kyoko) on an enormous wooded estate reachable only by hours in a helicopter.
Nathan is a curt but not unfriendly sort who loves to get drunk on an endless string of beers, wanders around in gym clothes and never quite lets Caleb forget who is boss — he is essentially the same sort of semi-jerk Issac played in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (perhaps Nathan is Llewyn’s descendant).
As Nathan shows Caleb through the Apple-store clean building, he tells Caleb that the contest winner is here to conduct a Turing test (essentially a test to see whether a computer can fool a human into thinking it is also human) on an AI, a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
But this isn’t a traditional Turing test; there is no attempt to fool Caleb that Ava is actually human. Walking around sans clothing, some parts of her body are flesh, the rest clear plastic, a nice visual metaphor for Ava’s semihuman status. The CGI is both kept to a minimum and executed beautifully — Ava is a wonder to behold.
And Nathan clearly wants Caleb to develop an emotional attachment to Ava, and perhaps the other way around as well. Nathan observes all of their interactions via CCTV … except when the power blinks off.
Then Ava, seemingly on her own and out of nowhere, reveals to Caleb that Nathan might not be all that he seems. Nor is Ava.
There are a lot of well-worn paths down which “Ex Machina” could go, and Garland ambles along a few of them. Indeed, there isn’t much, thematically, in “Ex Machina” that wasn’t covered in “Blade Runner” or any of Philip K. Dick’s how-do-we-know-we-are-human fictions.
(Indeed, “Ex Machina” often feels like an unofficial prequel to “Blade Runner,” a look at the early days of the Nexus 6 series in a lab at the Tyrell Corporation.)
This isn’t a criticism, really. If you have a weakness for science-fiction films that, due to budgetary constraints or intentional design, simply declare they are set in the future and let your imagination do the rest, “Ex Machina” is often a lovely piece, often a two-hander between Issac and Gleeson or Gleeson and Vikander.
But think of how much more interesting “Ex Machina” could have been, how much more complicated and layered Caleb’s attraction would become, with either a truly genderless AI — with all of sexual signifiers of, say, a toaster — or a visually ambiguous one, compatible with all sorts of desires.
That would have felt genuinely innovative, as powerful, perhaps, as Garland’s high-speed zombies in “28 Days Later.” It would have felt like the future.
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Rating: R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown