Not more than maybe ten minutes into Ex Machina, the stunning new film by writer-director Alex Garland, we meet Ava.
Now here's where I stop and acknowledge the first decision that someone talking about Ex Machina has to make and in reality it's not much of a decision at all. Despite the feminine name and appearance, as well as the sensuality Swedish actress and former ballerina Alicia Vikander brings to the character, Ava is still theoretically a robot. More to the point, Ava is a form of artificial intelligence, one that throughout the film is subjected to a "Turing Test" intended to determine whether an A.I. is so advanced that its behavior and thought processes are indistinguishable from those of a human being. The fact that Ava is a robot is never in doubt, since from the very first moment she's presented to the audience the only part of her appearance that features something resembling human skin is her face. The rest of her is wiring covered by transparent plastic and a casing that appears to be made of some sort of ballistic nylon. And yet here I am, referring to Ava not as "it" but as "her." That's the involuntary decision you make early on -- the decision that Ava is in fact a "person" in some sense.
Much of Ex Machina extends outward from that very first impression of this incredible creation, which in the film is the work of an amusingly arrogant tech-billionaire and computer genius played with scene-chewing relish by Hollywood's man-of-the-hour Oscar Isaac. It's Isaac's character, Nathan, who enlists one of his low-level coders, Caleb -- played by Domnhall Gleason with the same sense of doe-eyed innocence he brought to Black Mirror -- to test Ava through a series of face-to-face interactions. But the game being played by Ex Machina is clever indeed and it mirrors the game being played by Nathan, making the movie an exercise in meta-storytelling. Nathan wants to see if Caleb will succumb to Ava's femininity and sexuality while Alex Garland is placing Ava before the audience in attempt to see if it will do the same. So in reality, as much as Ava and even Caleb are being tested, so are you, the viewer.
When you think of movies that ask the question, "What would you do?" sci-fi films that probe topics as profound and philosophical as Ex Machina probably don't come to mind. Yet Ex Machina works so well precisely because it claws under your skin and leaves you not only wondering what your responses would be if you were put in the same situation as the characters, but sure of what they actually were as you watched the movie. The more that's revealed about Ava, the more intimate she and Caleb grow and the more he becomes drawn to her -- and certainly the more she begins to express vulnerability and fear about what may be to come for her -- the closer the audience feels to her. Particularly, of course, the men in the audience. As a piece published at i09 explains, Ava becomes "the lens through which male attitudes are refracted." For Caleb, she's a damsel in distress for a young man who, because of his tragic history, desperately needs to be able to save someone he cares for. While for Nathan, Ava is nothing but one more in the line of little cosmic jokes he's created as a self-made divinity. (One of the movie's best scenes has Caleb directly asking Nathan why he made Ava, as if he were being given the opportunity to personally question God.)
That's the ultimate Turing Test then and it's one Ex Machina knowingly plays with: Could you fall in love with a robot? Could you love something that's obviously not human? If you could, would it really prove that the robot's A.I. had made it indistinguishable from a human being or would it merely be a reflection of your own attitudes and feelings? Admittedly, when an android has the face and presence of Alicia Vikander, maybe for men it's an easy sell, but if you look at, say, Her -- which saw a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix fall for an operating system that was nothing more than the voice of Scarlett Johansson -- there are still weighty questions raised about what's really at the center of the emotion we know as love. Watching Caleb's astonishment and intellectual fascination at Ava give way to his emotions is an experience made more powerful by our own vulnerability to Ava's many mysteries. Put it this way: As Caleb started feeling deeply for Ava, I got it -- it was easy to see how such a thing would be possible because the character of Ava was so mesmerizing (and of course Alicia Vikander is a stunningly beautiful woman).
Back to that article in i09. It examines why in movies, so many robots are portrayed as women. Writer Charlie Jane Anders claims, correctly I believe, that while there's always something "not quite right" about Ava, "the moments when she’s most seductive are also the ones where she peels back her skin to reveal her artificial insides." She cites the Uncanny Valley as something Alex Garland was going for -- that theoretical space where an artificial human is nearly life-like but is just far enough off the mark for it to appear creepy and repulsive -- and probes the question of whether female robot-centric storylines are actually "cautionary tales about the danger of projecting our own insecurities and emotions onto a vessel that cannot, or will not, share them." Without spoiling the movie, the debate over that question becomes central to the film and certainly one of the many things the audience is left with when it exits the theater.
If movies -- and sci-fi movies in particular -- are all about taking us to places we've never been, then Ex Machina does its work admirably. Of course the philosophical issues, as well as the warnings from experts, surrounding the development of A.I. are already very much in the public's consciousness, mostly thanks to Hollywood and movies like Ex Machina. At some point, the question of whether it's possible to truly fall in love with something that isn't human but is instead, as futurist Ray Kurzweil calls it, a "spiritual machine" -- possessing what we couldn't deny is a consciousness -- will be confronted in our society in real-time. How our machines will respond, or whether we'll even be able to call them our machines anymore -- well, that's the real trick, isn't it? Whether Ava ultimately answers that question is something you'll have to find out for yourself.