Put this in your search engine and smoke it

Ex Machina takes up the perennial topic of artificial intelligence. And it throws in other themes: a slaves’ revolt, digs at über-rich CEO’s and über-nerds whose brilliance verges on autism, and hints of inter-species romance, gender roles, the longing to be human, and the Bluebeard myth. Much is going on, on paper. But on screen, things stagnate. The movie, which thinks it’s smart, in fact is shallow and smug. It is a faux-buddy picture with two men who don’t really like each other talking over beers about a woman — who is, actually, a machine — which is to say, a woman CGI-ed to look partly mechanical. Are the men machines too? God forbid, because then the plot would devolve into a self-absorbed head-trip. After a while one may not care, though the limp screenplay by writer Alex Garland, who doesn’t usually also direct, needs goosing with more surprises than the fairly obvious but weakly developed one at the film’s end.The movie arrives with a hushed, confident manner, and stars two of the most sought-after young-men-in-movies du jour. They are Oscar Isaac, as Nathan, the CEO, and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the employee brought from the far-off company to his boss’s remote retreat — his impressive estate or research facility, more like a national park commandeered for a bachelor pad, is in the middle of a lush nowhere — to sample the wiles, or just chat up, “Ava,” a robotic woman, and give her “the Turing test.” This means to interact with a computer to determine if it is indistinguishable from a human sensibility, therefore qualifying as “Artificial Intelligence.”But what Nathan has set up isn’t really a Turing test: Caleb can tell at sight that Ava is artificial, because underneath her pert, pretty head, he can see right through large segments of her body, thus bypassing Turing’s basic condition of completely neutral, blind communication. Besides, Nathan has as much as told him that Ava is his creation. And a damned brilliant one, he is sure. The point of all this, then, is obscure. Maybe Nathan is just playing with Caleb. Well, not maybe: obviously. But how naive, stupid and ridiculously humble can a supposedly smart programmer be? More likely, maybe Alex Garland is just playing with us, playing us for a fool. He seems to be making up the game as he goes along. And making use of some very awkward camaraderie between Nathan and Caleb and equally uneasy get-acquainted sessions between Caleb and Ava that advance the plot not very much. If this is an inside joke, it’s not very funny.

Isaac and Gleeson are oddly mismatched actors, as their characters are faux-buddies. Isaac is an actor who is always different, diffident and uneasy in different ways with different looks, and Gleeson is a harmless ephebe who is always the same, but every time with a different accent and hairstyle. This combination seems to neutralize both actors and make them less interesting than they might otherwise be when apart. Gleeson has been on the other side of the clone fence not long ago in the UK sci-fi TV series “Black Mirror’s” episode “Be Right Back,” where he’s a woman’s dead husband who is returned to her in the form of a disconcerting, and very sweet, letter-perfect replicant. This seems a good role for the almost-human Gleeson. And that series’s episodes are, quite unlike this film, swift and economical.

Isaac’s character, Nathan, one hates from the start, unless perhaps one identifies with narcissistic cyber geniuses. He lost me right off the bat when he announced that poor Caleb was about to witness “the greatest scientific event in the history of man.” Such a blowhard may be better kept out of people’s way, as here. But how can you be the founder and CEO of “the world’s most popular search engine” and live in total isolation? (The search engine is called “The Blue Book,” named after Wittgenstein, a touch pretentious, would you say?)

Come to that, how can anyone own property so vast it takes a private plane two hours to fly halfway over it? In the event, the ironies of Nathan’s character fail to register as his being anything other than an asshole, as well as an alcoholic weight lifter, who works out, drinks bottled water, and eats brown rice to recover from a succession of monumental all night binges. The dude (his word) may be lonely. Who helped him put together these cyber women? How come his posh bunker has nobody in view but one hooker-like Asian girl called Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno)? Who does the cleaning? Maybe security requires that Nathan do his own tidying up.

It seems something sinister is going on, from which Caleb may not emerge alive. Ava may be falling in love with him, or just programmed to seem to, and Caleb on hand just to test Ava’s abilities as a seductress. The possibilities are either endless or very limited, and it may amount to the same thing in this very arid closet drama. The notion that either of these men is remotely bright is appalling, and the scenes advance at a snail’s pace from intertitled day to day of what may be Caleb’s week of interviews with Ava and reports of his candid opinion to Nathan as to if she seems real. Or something.

Gradually, coyly, Garland’s story finally brings out what may be its main theme — the old Frankenstein dilemma of the human creation desperately longing to be accepted as itself human, precious, valuable, and non-disposable. But when it’s all done, this remains a topic that has the richer, more touching treatment, in a more complex human context, in Spielberg’s much-maligned but still definitive A.I. It makes a difference that in the earlier film the robot is an endearingly needy child, and not a pert Playboy bunny. And besides emotion, there is the key matter of intelligence, or here, faux intelligence. Ex Machina seems made not for the smart but the easily fooled, for those in the audience who may not know how to pronounce the title and therefore are impressed by it. Ex Machina is a blandly goodlooking film, but doesn’t bear close examination. Garland’s got chops to burn as a writer, as his collaborations with Danny Boyle on The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine show, and his novel The Tesseract, adapted for a film by Oxide Pang Chun, is at the very least a page-turner and a mind-bender. But he seems as yet unsuited to wearing two hats.

Ex Machina, 108 mins., was released 21 January 2015 in the UK, also has shown at a few big festivals. Us theatrical release 10 April 2015.


Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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