Sci-fi thriller ‘Ex Machina’ isn’t as smart as it pretends to be

Ava contemplates existence (and the perks of a detachable face).

Three stars

Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander. Directed by Alex Garland. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Alan Turing, the subject of last year’s Oscar-winning biopic The Imitation Game, proposed what would come to be known as the Turing Test: a practical means of determining whether a machine can be said to think. His idea was for the tester to converse electronically with a human being and a computer program; if the computer is misidentified as human, it passes the test. To date, no program has even come close.

The human characters in Ex Machina talk a lot about the Turing Test, but Alex Garland’s directorial debut (his screenplays include 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go) has something significantly different in mind. Invited to spend a week at the futuristic, secluded estate of his employer, a dot-com genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is stunned to learn that Nathan has succeeded in creating an intelligent humanoid robot—a comely female whom he’s named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Even though Caleb can see that Ava, whose limbs are transparent and stuffed with wiring, is a machine, Nathan wants him to conduct a version of the Turing Test with her, to determine whether she can truly pass for human. Over a series of mysterious power outages that disable Nathan’s cameras, however, Ava gradually reveals to Caleb that everything in this techno-paradise isn’t as it appears—and that she has feelings for him.

Shot on a relatively low budget, given its premise, Ex Machina mostly sticks to the spare rooms of Nathan’s home/laboratory, and its three lead actors are pretty much the whole show. Gleeson (Frank), whose father is the far more charismatic Brendan Gleeson, seems to be making a career out of bland guilelessness, but Vikander makes Ava suitably ambiguous, and Isaac has fun with the surprisingly un-nerdy Nathan, who comes across more like a fitness instructor than a mad scientist. The movie’s biggest problem is that its basic premise—the modified Turing Test that Nathan has Caleb conduct—doesn’t make any sense, especially in conjunction with some fairly obvious secrets lurking elsewhere in the compound. Consequently, it’s too easy to guess where the story is probably headed, because that’s the only direction that would satisfactorily explain Caleb’s presence. Garland throws in some red herrings, and he delivers a nicely chilling finale, but Ex Machina isn’t as smart as it pretends to be. It fails the test.

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