'Ex Machina': The Machine in the Garden

05/07/2015 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Caleb is a lucky guy. As the movie Ex Machina begins, he's just won the contest conducted by his employer Bluebook, the world's largest search engine. The prize is for Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend a week at the super secretive mountain retreat of his company's brilliant, prickly CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), testing Nathan's Artificial Intelligence creation Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Nathan's retreat is a stark modernist palace cum fortress in a remote natural paradise. Since the helicopter is forbidden to land anywhere near Villa Nathan, Caleb is dropped near a stream which he must follow to reach the CEO's stunning outpost. Director Alex Garland's camera cross cuts throughout the film from house to lush surrounding scenery, not so much for relief as for juxtaposition.

The job at hand for Caleb is not so lush -- outside of Nathan's drunken binges. Nathan's charge to Caleb is to test his creation to determine whether her intelligence is actual or simulated... the Turing Test. Can Caleb judge whether Ava's responses are those of a database-bound artificial intelligence or humanoid? Or is Caleb himself an other-than-human creation? But then the question is not only who acts in what fashion, but what does it ultimately mean to act human and where does it lead?

Meanwhile, our own intelligence is tested, as well. The clever score, the spare modernist sets of Nathan's house, the freighted dialogue between the three principals, all signal conflict and danger. But who will carry the threat of dramatic tension -- Nathan the genius, cynical, ego-maniacal creator; Ava the seductive Artificial Intelligence longing to be free; or even Caleb himself, sown with self-doubt and all too human longings. Is it trust or lust that is misplaced. Who to believe and who to betray?

Writing Director Garland unfolds the plot steadily but economically. He gives the principals a strong framework to explore questions of intelligence, creation, freedom, progress and relationship. Caleb and Ava are brought along slowly in the shadow of Oscar Isaac's Nathan. Under-appreciated for his understated performance in A Most Violent Year, Isaac is the fully realized embodiment of the high IQ, flawed street wise savant. Garland's writing, while not equisite, is clear and bold, an advance over his good work in 28 Days.

It should be noted that his grandfather Sir Peter Brian Medawar, 1960 Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine is the acknowledged "Father of Transplantation." Not only do the themes of transplantation echo through the family, but Medawar was characterized by Richard Dawkins as "the wittiest of all scientific writers" and by Stephen Jay Gould as "the cleverest man I have ever known."

But more than his debt to science, Garland clearly owes the Greeks! Aeschylus developed Deus ex Machina, the sometimes improbable intervention of the gods, to resolve dramatic conflict, particularly those lost causes which needed rescue. Euripides used it to a fault. Director Garland uses it to reflect on his all too human creatures, both man and machine, asking us what is intelligence and what is artificial.

Who gets to play god? Will our human qualities, Nathan's self destructive brilliance or Caleb's blinding emotional need, save us or doom us? When god itself is a human construct, we must ask ourselves who then will rescue us?