"I like Depeche Mode."
Caleb wins the lottery. His prize is a week's getaway to the exceedingly vast estate of his boss, Nathan Bateman. Nathan is the foremost authority of communications in the world. His company Bluebook is the preeminent search engine. Nathan has heightened plans for his genius: a next-level artificial intelligence. Caleb's task is simple. He must speak to "Ava" for seven straight days and determine whether she can be interpreted as human. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is plainly an android, but she is far from ordinary. A fabricated organic looking skin covers her face, hands and feet. To fit in with Caleb, Ava dresses in clothes, stockings, and a pixie cut wig.
Their conversations begin innocently enough. They speak of family and dreams. She draws him a picture. She asks him where they would go on their first date. Ava's naiveté is really cute. When Caleb asks her questions, she pauses fractionally, the algorithms in her translucent skull fire, a faint whirring noise emanates, before she delivers, inevitably, the correct response.
It's a fruitful decision to cast Ava with a relative unknown. Too familiar a face and the mystique of this robotic woman is washed away. Her wonderfully inquisitive face is fascinating to watch. While Ava is dressed up in clothes, your mind flickers between believing in her human tendencies and knowing she's synthetic. There's a wonderful scene when Ava discovers the past models of Nathan's research. She meanders through closets of robotics, and her fingers graze over their lifeless bodies. It's a serene and tragic moment. Vikander is beautiful. I'm curious as to whether director Alex Garland ever pondered using a less attractive woman to star. Sex plays a part in the film. It's not overpowering, but evident nonetheless. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) tells Caleb that there is a slit between Ava's legs, along with sensors to mimic the erotic zones of the female body. Nathan defends his decision by explaining how Ava must properly process all that humans have to offer and receive. His verity is conceivable, though it could also be the device of a terribly lonely man.
Domhnall Gleeson is terrific as Caleb. He's the right amount of nerdy for the role. His and Ava's interactions are intriguing to watch. It's slightly awkward at first, like a first date, but it quickly becomes clear that he feels a certain level of fondness towards her. At night in bed he spends his hours watching Ava on CCTV. At a later point she asks him if he finds her attractive. His words momentarily escape him, but the camera catches him as he swallows, betraying his silence. Through their dialogue we learn that he's experienced significant loss in his life. In many ways he and Nathan are similar men. Gifted coders with uncertain intentions. Different sides (though one is more demented) of the same coin.
MACHINA is beautiful, both in its execution and simplicity. Science fiction's proclivity is for big budgets and flashy colors. Here the tones are hushed, Nathan's world is quiet, matching his solitude. This is Garland's first feature, after being the scribe behind some of this century's most fascinating sci-fi endeavors (28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, NEVER LET ME GO). He wrote MACHINA as well. Garland is attracted to stories of isolation. Nathan's house is masked deep in the wilderness. The surrounding areas play little into the plot, if perhaps only to fuel his muted madness. The residence is plagued by rolling blackouts. During one of their sessions, the power goes out and Ava warns Caleb of Nathan's true sinister nature. Nathan's actions cement her accusations. He posts countless sticky-notes in his office of the encounters in his home; he berates Kyoko, a Japanese hired help; he binge drinks to fall asleep, then obsessively exercises and downs thick, green antioxidant beverages to counteract the daily hangovers.
Nathan tells Caleb that in order to properly install Ava with the necessary data, he hacked billions of user's phones. Nathan's brilliance is unquestioned. He and Caleb have a clash of the minds, each one trying to outmaneuver the other. Both joust for the credence of Ava. And while only one is made from cables and fiber optics, a paranoia-fueled mystery develops of who really is the one being programmed. Deus ex machina's literal term is 'god from the machine.' The themes of a higher power and evolution are touched upon throughout. Nathan is Ava's creator, and therefore the creator. Ava's genesis will bring about a leap forward in technology, yes, but also in the belief of what's fathomable. Nathan's hubris is divine.