'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age | Sojourners

'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

Beyond the writing, however, Ex Machina also boasts great visual style, an appropriately creepy soundtrack, and top-notch performances. Isaac plays Nathan like a hipster, health-nut blend of Victor Frankenstein andThe Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg — all arrogance, paranoia, and protein shakes. Swedish actress Vikander is also stunning as Ava, providing the right amounts of cold calculation and childlike innocence in a role that requires immense precision. And as Caleb, Gleeson is a perfect everyman with a flawed belief in his own decency.

While the film succeeds in aesthetics and writing, its philosophy is a little harder to pin down. It would seem at first that Garland is more interested in posing the question of what accounts for human behavior than answering it. But he does have a point of view, and it’s subtly communicated: none of us can fully identify the root of our humanity. There will always be a desire to know why the spark of the divine within us differs so wildly from person to person. But there will always be a limit to that understanding, one that mixes with frustration, desire, and fascination. It’s a very human answer to a very human question.

Even though Ex Machina presents nothing shocking or new as a story, it’s still a movie that begs to be discussed in depth after it’s finished. Within its characteristic sci-fi twists and turns are fascinating levels of psychology, interesting takes on gender politics, and references to its cinematic and literary ancestors that are both respectful and fun. It’s a digital-age Frankenstein that entertains as much as it pokes at bigger thoughts beneath its surface.

WATCH the trailer for Ex Machina here.

Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.