“I’ve never met someone new before.” Ava (Alicia Vikander) speaks carefully, her face turned toward Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as they peer at one another through glass. Caleb is a programmer, meeting Ava in order to test her. Ava is an AI, her body slender and see-through, circuits blinking and surfaces oh-so-glossy. For a moment, you can see how Caleb seems new, but you can also see how he seems old.
This last is a function of Ex Machina‘s plot, ostensibly set in motion when Caleb is invited to meet Ava by the programmer who made her, the extra-significantly named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Nathan’s a self-styled rock star, ultra-rich because he’s designed a NSA-sort-of super-surveillance and cell-phone-hacking program called Bluebook, put to super-lucrative commercial use. Being so smart and so rich, Nathan loves himself lots, introduced at his excessively accessorized mountain hideaway as he’s slamming a heavy bag, mist in the far distance and Caleb tentative in his approach. Impatient with small talk, fond of beer, Nathan informs Caleb he’ll be the human component in the Turing Test he means to run on Ava. After fretting some and signing a formidable nondisclosure document, Caleb’s in.
Per formula, Nathan monitors Caleb’s work with Ava via many cameras and sound devices, maintaining the distance between his experiment’s subjects by means of glass walls, one of which remains cracked from a previous pounding that you first imagine and then see clearly in a flashback provided by Nathan’s footage, hacked by Caleb. As soon as you see the crack, you know that you’ll soon enough find out why Nathan, such a perfectionist in all things, has left this glass broken. You know as well that every moment of interaction between anyone is a manipulation, if not directly of one or more of them, then certainly and increasingly obviously, of you.
This manipulation is of a piece with several recent, resonating movies about men and machines in its use of gender as a metaphor for difference. While Caleb worries that he’s being seduced by Ava, he doesn’t quite ask how Nathan is seducing him; he does ask why Nathan “gave her sexuality,” which suggests he’s at least partly aware of how the power dynamics are running here. But Caleb’s not allowed to acknowledge what you might, Ava’s story lines up with assorted other girls whose treatment as objects becomes a lesson for the rest of us, including the men who so treat (and presume for and lord over) them.
And so Ava and Caleb make separate discoveries as to Nathan’s fearsome callousness, so that you see as well. Ava finds she might make art, want sex, or joke with Caleb and so he swoons (see Her), she discovers her body might resemble a human female’s with clothing and a wig added (Under the Skin), she finds within herself, however designed, a remarkable power and capacity for calculated cruelty (Lucy), and yes, she also comes across a collection of previous models, hung up in closets, no less (as Ripley finds versions of herself in Alien 4 or as Harry Mudd made so many replicas of the girls who were not his wife in Star Trek‘s “I, Mudd”).
Per formula, these many movements occasion all manner of shifts for viewers. Nathan’s most consistent in his raging putzness, though he does manage some charming affectations (for all his money and tech wizardry, he maintains a wall plastered with Post-Its) and seems sometimes wistful for fleshly pleasure. Still, the film sets him as your opponent as much as he is Caleb’s or Ava’s, primarily by showing his brutality with a supermodel-looking servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), whose ostensible inability to understand English he ostensibly takes as license to abuse her.
Not exactly in contrast, Caleb’s yearning is a function of his physical and other confinements (Nathan advises both Caleb and Ava of their limits of movement, knowledge, and thought repeatedly), as well as his troubled past (he’s got scars on his back and yes, a backstory to go with). It’s easy to see how Caleb and Nathan bond and also how they’re alike, which is not to say the film indicts all nerds, but it does use the type to make a set of mostly predictable points about masculinity, ego, and empathy.
Ava, though, is another story, as she must be. In this, she’s exemplary, which is to say, not news, but still compelling for the most part. Even as Caleb (or you) might imagine a romance or a rescue or a mutual commitment, Ava remains unknown. He watches her through glass when they test one another, he watches her via cameras when he’s alone. That she looks into the lens more than once, or performs a lovely, haunting gesture like pulling off her stocking, suggests she knows she’s not alone, ever. That he imagines he’s alone — or unwatched — in a “research facility” designed by the plainly pathologically controlling Nathan suggests that Caleb doesn’t think ahead, or that he’s naïve, or that he hasn’t seen enough movies.
The juxtaposition of Caleb and Ava is also a likeness, of course, registered in their similar pallor, their similar quietness and their similarly performed humility and curiosity. They seem to want to share each other, too, to question and answer, to flirt and to make plans and to conspire. The repeated question about AI — is “it” aware of its own mind — might be asked of Caleb and Nathan too, a point made emphatically when the former decides to explore his own physical limits, graphically and bloodily.
What can it possibly mean to be so aware? Ex Machina doesn’t offer easy or even very satisfactory answers. How can any individual gauge or show self-awareness, given how easy it is to lie, to be deluded, to believe? Ava embodies dreams. She may even dream. But your understanding stops short, so you project and presume, like Caleb, like Nathan. As the film tests you, you’re left to sort out whether you pass.