‘Ex Machina’: Rise of the fembot


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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Movies & TV

The Alamo Drafthouse, Fantatic Fest and fans: one year later
The Alamo Drafthouse, Fantatic Fest and fans: one year later

One year ago, the Alamo Drafthouse was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal the beginnings of which went back nearly 20 years, a scandal that broke before and during Fantastic Fest, the chain’s signature film festival celebrating all thing genre — think horror, crime, science fiction. Here was a company, homegrown in liberal Austin...
In an age of anger, TV shows take a different path: They’re sad
In an age of anger, TV shows take a different path: They’re sad

Sad songs, if you know your FM radio history, say so much. Elton John was right when he sang about the cathartic powers that come from a Top-40 wallow in all degrees of hurt and heartbreak — the satisfaction of recognizing one’s own pain in mainstream pop. But as much as we’re willing to cry along with ballads, I keep running into...
Dierks Bentley, ‘Hook’ screening and more things to do Thursday
Dierks Bentley, ‘Hook’ screening and more things to do Thursday

Books At Central: Bethany McLean. America has become the world’s top producer of both oil and natural gas thanks to the technology of fracking in shale rock — particularly in the Permian Basin in Texas. But is it sustainable? Investigative journalist Bethany McLean has dug deep into the cycles of boom and bust that have plagued the American...
Kick off fall with Ballet Austin show, Medfest and more events
Kick off fall with Ballet Austin show, Medfest and more events

1. Ballet Austin’s “The Firebird” and “Dvořák Serenade” 8 p.m. Sept. 21 and 22, 3 p.m. Sept. 23. $15-$89. The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Dr. balletaustin.org. Ballet Austin is taking on two works for this one-weekend show, starting with the seductive “The Firebird.” The world-famous ballet is...
Austin’s longest-running quilt show returns Sept. 28-30 with mini quilts, rainbows of color
Austin’s longest-running quilt show returns Sept. 28-30 with mini quilts, rainbows of color

Quilters and sewing nerds are all around you. Sometimes, they look like the grandmothers and mothers who might have taught you to sew a long time ago, but increasingly, they look like men and young people and punk rockers and people who also run marathons on the weekend. I’m one of those quilt fans who looks forward to the annual...
More Stories