EX MACHINA is a sci-fi thriller from Alex Garland on the theme of artificial intelligence. It raises the familiar questions – moral, ethical, ontological, political – with which the issue is fraught. Is a fully realized AI effectively human, or its equivalent; is it conscious (whatever that means) and morally aware; would it have a will to power, be smarter and more single-minded than we are; something to be feared or loved; is it even a possibility? Garland’s setup for dramatizing these issues is deft, a hermetic situation that the protagonist enters voluntarily but can’t leave at will; he is isolated and potentially trapped; and we know it from the start.

It is, in the beginning, an honor for him to be there. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is a young programmer chosen by his tech mogul boss Nathan to spend a week at his isolated retreat. Gleeson is hipster-nerd charming in the part, and Oscar Isaac, as Nathan, has the change-the-world arrogance that someone like Caleb, girlfriendless and computer bound, can’t resist. The two are great together: the oleaginous one-percenter and the fawning (but smart and on-his-guard) admirer. Caleb is tasked to assess Nathan’s latest AI, called Ava, a sleek, semi-transparent concoction of whirring machinery with the face, hands, and feet of Alicia Vikander. It seems the previous versions have passed whatever blind tests Nathan requires, because, although the Turing test is invoked by way of background, there is no effort to conceal its (her?) mechanical nature from Caleb. The question, as Nathan explains, rather unconvincingly, is whether she, or “she,” is persuasive on some muddily defined deeper level.

As soon as Caleb meets Ava, the actor playing her (it?) becomes pivotal, not merely to the success of the film as entertainment, but to how one answers the questions it poses. Actors pretend to be people they aren’t all the time. Ava is not exactly pretending to be a human, rather has been designed to be like one, but if the design has succeeded she can presumably behave in ways that may or may not be inherent in her programming. Put the right actor in the role, even limited, essentially, to face and hands, and you have a mimetic flipbook: that Ava is acted raises questions of free will and identity in ways more layered than they might be, hypothetically, in the experiment itself.

Vikander is heartbreakingly good in the part. I first saw her in two historical films, Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair, to which she lent an uncommon subtlety and alertness. She brings the same, and more, to the mirror-like complexity of EX MACHINA. What she does in playing Ava is something like wearing a theatrical mask in reverse. Rather than the mask covering the face and taking on the moods of the person underneath, Vikander’s face imparts to the fleshless Ava an all-too-human changeability of thought and emotion. As Ava starts experimenting with a wardrobe, and eventually endows herself with a full armature of simulated flesh (in reality Vikander’s), the question of surface and its relation to what it covers is all the iffier and more disorienting.

Ex machina is, after all, a Latin phrase that could mean “from, because of, or according to the machine,” or, to the English speaking ear, imply a former (or ex-) machine. EX MACHINA has the makings of a smooth and reasonably thoughtful puzzler. Vikander’s presence takes it to another level. She couldn’t be better, or more sophisticated, in not only playing, but playing with whatever, or whoever, Ava is, or might become.

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