I do enjoy some good, intelligent sci-fi, and this looked like the genuine article, with an interesting premise and wonderful look and good performers and lots of unsettling intimations in the trailer. And in many ways it delivers, except it has a weak third act and ultimately raises more expectations than it’s prepared to fulfill. But these seem like quibbles when the majority of the movie is so good.
So this coder Caleb wins a contest to visit Martin, the president of his tech company, at his exclusive enclave in the wilderness. Martin has developed a Google-esque search engine that commands 94% of the world’s search traffic, and is very much modeled on some of our current tech moguls, especially in “Dude!”-peppered speech and loose sense of morality. Before you know it, Caleb is being helicoptered to Martin’s headquarters, which are somewhere that looks a lot like Norway, with glaciers and huge green mountains. Deep into the wilderness, Caleb is told that he’s “been flying over Martin’s estate for the past two hours.” At a certain point the helicopter “can go no further,” a nice touch I thought borrowed from Dracula, and the movie makes no bones about setting Martin up as a menacing figure. He is met recovering from a wicked night of drinking… but there was no party, he drank alone. Caleb arrives at the house to find a blue security light that is a color-switched clone of HAL’s famous red eye.
Nathan makes Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement that he cannot use the phone and must allow his computer to be searched, in order to see what he’s told is the most important scientific advance in decades. Turns out Nathan has developed an artificially-intelligent robot, and he wants Caleb to test it: the Turing test, which states that if someone can’t tell it is a robot, then it is genuinely AI. Now, he just TOLD the guy it’s a robot, and now he’s going to test to see if he can tell it’s a robot. But let’s not get bogged down with that. Caleb says “That would be the most important event not in the history of man, but the history of God,” which Nathan later remembers as him saying “You’re not a man, you’re a God,” in a good touch. Unfortunately, a lot of the great touches throughout aren’t really going to amount to much in the end, but be very nice character window dressing.
So Caleb is to have a series of conversations with Ava, Martin’s robot. Her design is one of the main strengths of the film, many of which are purely visual. The movie has a lot of ingenious visual touches, like how amazing a simple wall full of Post-Its looks when lit from above, and Oscar Isaac with cropped hair and a full beard. Ava has a fleshy face, but her arms and torso show mechanics covered by a body-shaped mesh, which makes her look unmistakably unnatural, even as she moves with natural grace. She is a giant CGI-creation smack in the center of numerous scenes, and she looks great every time. She is also uncannily sexual, and we are soon told that she is able to have sex. You start to wonder… what are some of Caleb’s tests going to verge on here? Fascinating premise… and once again, more than the movie is prepared to deliver.
So Caleb’s first conversation with her is predictably shallow, but that’s to be expected. Then his next conversation is… also fine, but also not that deep or interesting. I thought he was supposed to be testing her? Then their third conversation is also kind of a bust, and by now you’re realizing that he’s never going to ask really probing questions, like how she feels? How she learns? What does she think about music or art? Would she like to go outside? But this is diverted from because, during a blackout—when Martin’s persistent surveillance is down—she tells him not to trust Martin, that everything he says are lies.
Okay, so now we have some suspense. And Martin is seeming ever-more suspicious. He’s around when you don’t expect, and he’s constantly drinking, and getting edgy. And what’s with the mute Japanese servant that he viciously belittles? And he watches everything Caleb does at the place. Things get creepy—then creepier! Is he abusing and belittling Ava? He confesses to committing an egregious worldwide surveillance atrocity without a thought. He also tells Caleb that Ava will be destroyed and upgraded eventually. Meanwhile, Ava is coming to like Caleb, to discuss dating him, and confess her dislike of Martin. It all continues, steadily but slowly tightening, until—
SPOILERS > > >
Caleb gets Martin drunk and steals his key card, then goes downstairs and finds out that… his Japanese servant and other previous robot models are basically sex machines! There is a lot of effectively macabre imagery as the robots remove parts of their skin, making for some extremely gory zero-gore images. Caleb does a bit of programming, and tells Ava to plan for their escape!
Also in here is a long sequence that just fell flat for me. Caleb, after seeing the robots downstairs, goes to his room and cuts open his arm, and plays around in the blood. I guess we're supposed to feel like all this realistic robot flesh around has made him question his own humanity? But that came across only intellectually and not emotionally, and given all the other things in the film that receive short shrift, I'd rather lose this ineffective aside for more interesting content.
Now—do you want to know the ending? Because knowing it might be a bit of a disappointment, once you see how little it comes to. Last chance. Martin reveals that he knows Caleb is planning to escape with Ava—he was actually listening during the blackouts. Martin suggests that maybe Ava is just pretending to like Caleb in order to use him. Caleb reveals that he already reprogrammed the doors. Then—Ava is free! She tells Caleb to stay where he is, and she and the servant stab and kill Martin. Caleb seems to be locked in, and Ava doesn’t seem too concerned with getting him out. Danged down-and-dirty double-crossin’ robot woman! She leaves him entombed to die while she goes out and explores the world. I guess she didn't love him after all! The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
So, it’s one of the endings you can guess from the beginning, and I had hoped for a few more surprises. Makes sense, and follows, I guess, it’s just not very exciting. Ava was never very threatening throughout—in fact, it’s hard to have the sense that she really wants anything—so the thought of her getting her way doesn’t bring much sense of dread. Furthermore, because it ends this way, one can’t help but feel that most of the brilliantly laid-out escalating sense of fear and dread of Martin never really comes to much of anything. Ultimately, he’s not that threatening, so all of that build-up was just kind of… interesting asides?
I also honestly expected the film to go in a sexual direction with Ava—I thought it likely that one of the weird tests of her humanity would be Caleb expected to have sex with her—and I’m a little bummed that none of it panned out. Could have been pretty explosive, no? Kinky and uncomfortable? But no. And while I get that she’s being made out as a bit of a femme fatale, I think they should have gone further in this direction. What if she full-out seduced Caleb and induced him to murder Martin? A full-out AI robot Double Indemnity could have been a very modern, fascinating little tale. But not that, either. We get what seems like an honorable, but unexciting, little wrap-up.
And again, for as fantastic a creation as she is, we really don’t get to know Ava. How fascinating it could have been—even with this ending—if we came to understand a lot more about her mind and how it works. We have a series of conversations, a structure the entire movie is built around, but none of them are very interesting, and we scarcely know her at the end any better than we do at the beginning. This movie could have kept everything else intact, but made a devastating emotional impact if only we really came to know, and feel for, Ava. Or if we had a concrete sense of how she uses her intelligence to emotionally manipulate the humans. But she remains a blank.
Still, there’s so much good about it: the realization of Ava, the look of the house, the slow menace of Martin, the excellently rising tension, that it remains worth seeing, and is generally “good.” But it could have used some real emotional stakes and psychological involvement with its characters to fill out that brilliant scaffolding, to end up with something really moving and special.
Yeah, it’s good, I just think it could have easily been great.