There’s a new movie called Ex Machina whose message can be summed up as “don’t fall in love with a robot.” This is not exactly the freshest theme, since male movie characters have been ill-advisedly falling in love with female robots practically since the word “robot” was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in 1920. In Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, the first great science-fiction film, a dictator uses the likeness of a noble socialist girl for an evil robot whose mission is to distract the men of the city from pursuing freedom by blinding them with lust.
Nobody actually calls Ava, the titular machina of Ex Machina, a robot. That would not be cool, and the film’s writer-director Alex Garland wants Ex Machina to be cool, above all things. All but the opening two minutes and the final 30 seconds are set in a spectacular underground mansion that’s part Bond-villain lair, part Apple Store. (It was filmed at a resort in Norway that you’ve probably already toured from your couch during a World’s Hottest Hotels special on the Travel Channel.) She is the construct of a billionaire who is half Zuckerberg and half Jobs, an oddly sybaritic recluse played by the wonderful Oscar Isaac. He refers to Ava solely as an “A.I.,” because those two letters are cooler than Capek’s original five letters, and these days you can buy a robot with free shipping from Amazon Prime that looks like the 1970s memory game Simon and will attempt and fail to vacuum your floors. Who would want to spoon with a Roomba anyway?
But you can’t fool me. This A.I. may have a glowing translucent brain, but she’s also got titanium arms, things whirr and click when she moves, and she’s drop-dead gorgeous, so of course she’s a robot. She is played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who will be in five other major movies this year, which is not surprising, because she speaks English beautifully and as a visual object she’s practically perfect in every way.
And this brings up the other thing. Let’s face it, the whole female-robot scenario is a deeply disturbing one, since it’s basically a creepy wish fulfillment about a woman with no personality who will do everything and anything a man tells her to. The only way to cleanse this fantasy of its moral stain is to make sure the men in the movies are punished for it—and, by extension, the men in the audience who are jazzed by the idea.
Garland sets up a jangly atmosphere, full of off-kilter music that evokes Stanley Kubrick movies as well as John Carpenter’s Halloween. But atmosphere is mostly what you get in Ex Machina. There’s not much “there” here. The inventor brings in Caleb, a guy from his company (the bland British actor Domhnall Gleeson), to spend a week with Ava and see if he can determine whether she has become self-aware—has crossed the threshold from being a simulacrum of a person to a new form of being. But the movie never really establishes why the inventor needs Caleb to determine that; he seems to know it already, and he might only be supplying Ava with a human toy to play with.
So the movie becomes one of those “you can’t trust anyone” paranoid thrillers, which is fine, except there are only four people onscreen—the inventor, Caleb, Ava, and the inventor’s mute Asian maid/cook/companion. You need to generate a little more untrustworthiness than that. And after a time, the radically depopulated single setting becomes tedious. Garland should have sacrificed some of the haute-design cool in favor of a little dramatic heat.
The elemental fear generated by the notion of human-like robots is that we are going to be replaced by machines that look like us but are smarter, don’t get sick, aren’t neurotic, and can throw a boulder at you when they get angry. I guess this possibility either haunts you or it doesn’t. My history of dealing with advanced devices suggests I’d get one, and it would be in the middle of helping me carry a couch up a staircase when Time Warner Cable screws up my Internet, the robot freezes, and the couch starts descending on me like a Sumo wrestler on a water slide. Which is to say, Alex Garland has his fears, and I have mine.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.