Ex Machina: What makes us human?

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Ava, a robot with artificial intelligence. Photo: Mongrel Media/Universal Pictures
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Ava, a robot with artificial intelligence. Photo: Mongrel Media/Universal Pictures
Published November 10, 2015

Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Released April 24, 2015; available on Netflix
108 minutes

At last—a movie that got a wide commercial release that’s worth getting excited about! Smart, original and utterly engrossing, Ex Machina is both a minimalist exploration of what makes us human and a modern science fiction classic. A bright, and very decent, young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb) wins a contest to spend several days at the home of his reclusive Internet-billionaire/inventor boss (Oscar Isaac as Nathan). If “home” it can be called: the glass and rock research facility is, like an iceberg, mostly underground, on a vast, isolated estate consisting of mountains, forests and glaciers. Caleb gets a card-key (bearing his startled image) that grants him access to some rooms but not to others. Ostensibly, the purpose of his visit is a chance to bond with his boss.

But the iceberg analogy is apt in two ways—first, Nathan is a bit of an iceberg himself: cold, abrasive, imperious and, we immediately suspect, ruthlessly intent on some hidden agenda; and, second, this is very much a story about what is concealed—in the human psyche and otherwise.

It turns out Caleb’s selection wasn’t random at all: he was handpicked for the task of meeting and interacting with an artificial intelligence created by Nathan in the form of a woman. The form she takes is that of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. “Ava” has the actress’s face and her voice, hands and feet—the rest of her is a transparent automaton whose gears gently whir (in a nice bit of sound design) as she moves. Caleb is asked to administer the so-called “Turing Test” (named after the real-life computer pioneer and wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing), to determine if an apparent A.I. can truly think independently.

The great strength of this film is its quiet conversations between Caleb and Ava, with the two parties separated by a clear wall. There is a riveting elegance about those scenes that leaves us grappling to discern who is testing whom and why. Ava was made to be attractive to Caleb; but is she attracted to him in turn? Are whispered confidences real? Intent—real, feigned, apparent or disguised—is in question for all of these characters. For instance, what is it that Nathan really wants to learn? He dismisses Caleb’s well-intentioned logical analysis and demands instead a more visceral reaction from his guest.

Meanwhile, Nathan’s mute servant (Sonoya Mizuno) tends to his every need submissively and in utter silence. Her silent watchfulness, Nathan’s prickliness, the isolation of the setting, the locked doors, the ubiquitous surveillance, the vaguely unsettling musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the mysterious power failures, Ava’s demeanour of lonely sadness—all lend the film a palpable sense of subdued foreboding. We have the sense that something undefinable is very wrong here. Things take a more conventional turn near the end; but that does not diminish the power, the subtlety, the mystery and the beauty of this film. Kudos to writer and first-time director Alex Garland: Ex Machina is the best film of 2015 so far!


John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.


Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.


Caution: Coarse language; nudity; and some violence.




  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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