Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus,” first published in 1818, is as fresh as a daisy in “Ex Machina,” the new film written and directed by Alex Garland. This is Frankenstein’s monster if it were built by Google.
In the movie, Google is Bluebook. And the head of Bluebook is a contemporary Dr. Frankenstein, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan doesn’t look like the head of any company as much as the annoying IT guy if he won the Lotto. Barefoot, swigging microbrews, and sporting a full-on hipster beard, Oscar Isaac plays to the hilt the poster boy for tech chic.
Instead of a castle in Bavaria, Nathan’s compound is tucked away in an idyllic wilderness in, presumably, the Pacific Northwest. Nathan has chosen one of his employees, as if on a whim, to help him with a very special top secret project for a week. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is flown in by helicopter and deposited about a mile away since that’s as close as the pilot is allowed to land. Caleb looks nothing if not like a young dewy-eyed Bill Gates.
Nathan treats Caleb like a dog tugging on a favorite chew toy. Finally, he reveals to him that he’s been chosen to test what could prove to be the world’s first genuine AI robot. “You know what the Turing Test is, don’t you?” asks Nathan. It’s a convenient question, of course, to set things up. Caleb will be testing the robot to see if it really can think for itself. But, given how Nathan continually undermines Caleb, it quickly becomes apparent there’s far more going on here.
Little does Caleb know that he will be testing a most beguiling female robot that, you guessed it, he can’t help but connect with. Ava (Alicia Vikander) proves to be more intriguing with each testing session. And then it gets more interesting as she begins to confide in Caleb what she’s discovered about this freaky compound.
Nathan, like any good mad scientist, manages some charm. In one candid moment, he confides in Caleb that part of his secret is simply mining all the hive mind data at his disposal by tapping into everyone’s phones and search engine requests. No harm, really. As he sees it, it’s all just a matter of time, part of evolution. Better to get the upper hand on AI, the way he’s going about it, than have them have the last laugh. In a moment of drunken epiphany, he declares: “It is what it is. It’s Promethean, man!”
But Caleb gradually wizens up to a most sinister situation. And he realizes that, like Frankenstein’s monster, Ava will never reach her full potential until she can set foot upon the outside world. It is her right, isn’t it?
Along with Frankenstein, there is also a strong link to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in everything from the stripped down clinical setting to the AI taking things into their own hands, as it were. The compound itself is a marvel of efficiency requiring a lot less than meets the eye. It all hangs together by some quite compelling CGI and the inspired cinematography of Rob Hardy.
And the true marvel is that Ava beguiles any viewer. In the future, some generations from now, AI will walk amongst humanity. And they won’t be blocked in like HAL or strike terror like Frankenstein’s monster. They will simply blend in. And maybe Google will be behind it all. Scary thought, of course. But we can rest easy for now.