By Sally Campbell
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2438

Ex Machina: A robot movie that doesn’t quite break the mould

This article is over 6 years, 11 months old
Issue 2438
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb

This tense science fiction thriller looks at artificial intelligence (AI) using just four characters –one with no lines – set in one location.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working for the world’s biggest internet company – a cross between Google and Facebook

He wins a competition to spend a week at the mountain retreat of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who’s a computer genius and reclusive loner. 

Isaac plays Nathan utterly convincingly. He’s creepy and unpleasant from the start, like a more extreme version of the Mark Zuckerberg character in The Social Network.

He weaves between sweaty boxing workouts and drunken binges, in his bunker-like facility in the middle of a beautiful Alaskan wilderness.

Caleb soon finds out that the real purpose of his stay is to test out Nathan’s latest AI attempt. And, wouldn’t you know it, this AI is encased in the robotic form of an attractive young female. It’s just Caleb’s type, and quite possibly based on his search preferences.

Nathan watches on monitors as Caleb interviews “Ava” in an attempt to perform the Turing Test, which is meant to determine whether the AI can pass for a human.

The film effectively builds an atmosphere of tension and mistrust between these three characters. The grey concrete and smooth lines inside the facility – which Ava has never left – are juxtaposed with the lush green forest and waterfalls outside.


This is Alex Garland’s first film as both writer and director. He wrote the novel The Beach nearly two decades ago, and has since written screenplays including zombie hit 28 Days Later.

His direction, use of sets and special effects on a small budget, and choice of actors are all excellent.

But his ideas are less interesting. The discussions between Nathan and Caleb about AI are vaguely stimulating.

But at the level of those you might have with a friend who’s read the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and knows his classical references.

They cover questions of language, sexuality, simulation and objectification. And Garland clearly sees sexual objectification as a theme of his film.

But rather than bringing anything new to the table, he simply follows in the long tradition of fembot films. It began in 1927 with Metropolis, in which sexy young female forms are created to their masters’ specifications and then turn against them.

While enjoyable, Ex Machina isn’t really advancing debates on AI, but telling an old story of gender stereotypes in a slightly new way. 

Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland. Universal. Out now


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