Artificial intelligence doesn't interest me that much. Domhnall Gleeson, however, interests me a great deal, and as you may have noticed, he's now legally required to be in all movies. Seriously: can't turn around without seeing that guy on a screen! What a time to be alive! May his hair shine with the fury of a thousand suns for a hundred years, etc.
My taste in movies is weird and specific. I feel lucky if I see one or two a year that I either love or find engaging. (Those are different feelings — I didn't love this, it's a difficult watch and made me uneasy, but I couldn't look away.)
SPOILER ALERT: The movie is on Amazon Prime now; if you haven't already seen it, stop here and do so.
The feeling of loneliness and isolation is instantaneous, panning over Caleb's workplace, ambient music, the sounds of a busy environment muted, people gazing at their phones. He's surrounded by coworkers yet alone — it's immediately evident that this is someone floating, no family, no friends. Even as he wins "first prize" at something, the messages of congratulations seem trite insincere — the kind of things people who don't know you well say to you on Facebook for your birthday. This is the first time you see it: a blue crackle around his face as he checks texts. I didn't think much of it the first time — some kind of facial recognition software.
The helicopter ride: it's not immediately apparent where this is set. The fact that the helicopter can fly for 2+ hours and still be on this mysterious estate, and that the pilot has presumably never seen the house or met the owner, registers dully. No cell service, people, towns, power lines. Nothing. You still don't know where he's going, or for what.
The house is plain. Modern at first, like Architectural Digest: token fire logs, comfortable chairs in the living room, a distant tinkle of classical, but as more of it is revealed, the house turns out to be almost Brutalist. (It's the Juvet Landscape Hotel, a place I have long desired to visit, did not recognize, and now I'd be afraid to stay at.)
You meet Nathan - the owner of this giant company Caleb works for, plainer than the house, and as hard. Bipolar, I realize on the second watching. By the end, psychopathic. The unease is tangible. As Nathan gets Caleb settled, the house powers up, that hum, ushering them into an unbearable, unrelieved bunker-like room. You see Caleb's hands tighten on the non-disclosure agreement. The document is excessively strict; Nathan dismisses it, Caleb signs, I feel trapped. This movie takes its title from the phrase "deus ex machina" — a twist in the plot, a way out. Remember that. Caleb's here for a Turing test of an AI Nathan has built. Her name is Ava.
Session 1: The glass in the observation room is smashed, like a bird had flown into it. Caleb, birdlike himself, is curious, nervous, asking bookish questions. Ava is the opposite of Nathan, the house, the landscape: delicate, feminine, even arch. During my rewatch, it struck me how childlike she looks, and yet how controlled and cautious — that Dylan song "Just Like a Woman" is rather apropos.
Caleb unpacks his bag, you see thick scars on his back. The kind sailors and slaves had. They're never explained. Unable to sleep, disoriented, he accidentally turns on the CCTV. Ava turns to look at the camera, and the power goes down. He's trapped, only momentarily, as the house locks down for security, and reboots. Wandering down the hall past a series of progressively more human masks, he pushes into a room containing only a priceless Pollock and an inebriated Nathan, and tries to use the phone. Denied. The power cut is written off as a fluke. Go back to sleep, kid.
Session 2: Ava asks Caleb if Nathan is a friend, a GOOD friend, urgency in her voice. The power cuts. She whispers, don't trust Nathan. The system reboots, she resumes the banter of a minute prior.
Second night. Kyoko (I don't know what to call her other than Nathan's slave) spills a glass of wine, triggering Nathan's latent cruelty — Caleb tries to intervene, and you learn that she speaks no English, although plainly understanding it. Nathan probes about what happened during the power cut, and Caleb for the first time counters by revealing he knows about the CCTV. Later, alone, he watches Ava in the dark, the blue light of the screen flickering on his face. It's a bizarre combination of furtiveness and innocence. I wondered if this was smart. If you know about the CCTV, and you're watching her, couldn't he be watching you?
Session 3: how do you dress for a date with a robot? If you're the robot? The dress snags slightly on the mesh of her arms. Whose reference photos are those? Who gave her a picture of Twiggy? The chosen ensemble is grandmotherly, sound-of-music-y, but still, just a pretty girl in a dress and a cardigan and stockings with a glowing brain stem and a preternaturally smooth stride, a pretty robot girl, asking if a boy likes her. It's earnest and uncomfortable, but easy enough to forget for a bit that this is still a test. He observes her undressing, reaching out as though to touch her — she's no more naked than she was at the beginning, but she's human to him now.
Cut to Kyoko, slicing fish for sushi. Precise, smooth, inescapably sensual, that "schwick" a sharp knife makes going through flesh. Caleb asks whether Ava's been programmed to like him, Nathan asks if he wants to sleep with her, Caleb recoils, Nathan blows up. You realize Nathan is escalating — bigger outbursts, less time between them.
Session 4: Caleb suggests the concept of "outside", of a life beyond Nathan. Ava's eyes glaze as she pictures it, Nathan observing from the console, Kyoko reclining, eyes wide open and unblinking, dull in contrast with Ava. As the power goes out yet again, Caleb and Ava hurry to talk unobserved, closer and closer together, separated only by thin glass.
Caleb and Nathan are outside now, climbing on glacial rock, flanked by an iceberg, and as they argue, it's brought out that the contest was rigged, Caleb not chosen on his merit. Nathan is again as cold and hard as the scenery: with his career and company built on exploitation, he's not about to stop and scruple over the purity of this test.
Caleb tries to shower this off, mind flashing to the imagined date with Ava, soft grass, golden light, kissing her. Nathan is back at the punching bag, and then turns to Kyoko, waiting with a towel. For a second you think he'll punch her too. Time passes. Nathan is talking to Ava on the monitor, and Caleb panics, feeling the need to guard her. He looks for Nathan, finds Kyoko, she tries woodenly to appease him by removing her shirt, he frantically tries to stop her, Nathan strolling in in the midst of this, ready to dance, completely disconnected from whatever just happened with Ava. There's no telling how long this dance party goes on. The night draws to an end with Nathan, yet again, getting completely trashed.
Session 5: Ava is now asking Caleb the bookish questions, and he's responding to her like she's human. The segue was perfect. As the power cuts (you've learned by now that this is something she's doing on purpose), she holds up a drawing of him, torn into scraps by Nathan the previous night — remember, she's only drawn geometric patterns up until now, this was her first chosen subject.
Nathan reveals that Ava will be "retired": mind backed up, body preserved, a better model made, and you see how much Caleb has humanized her. He's horrified, again, but a plan starts crystallizing — he kick-starts one of Nathan's benders, swipes his keycard, and accesses the database, watching hours of past footage, Nathan with the previous models. Jasmine, Jade, naked machines, eventually breaking down and attempting escape, one pulverizing her artificial limbs against the glass.
In Nathan's bedroom, a naked Kyoto waits unmoving on the bed. Caleb opens the closets — the previous models, naked, clothed, in pieces. Kyoko peels off a piece of her torso, her face. He makes his way out, manages to convince a stumbling Nathan the keycard was only dropped. Alone in his room, going mad, he feels his own face, pulls at his teeth, breaks apart his razor and cuts deeply into his arm, fingers poking at the wound, blood pooling everywhere, and then you see that blue light again, reading his face, which is calm, quizzical, as he smears blood on the mirror, and then punches it.
Session 6: Ava kills the power, Caleb proposes the escape plan: get Nathan drunk, trigger the power outage, escape together.
Day 7: Nathan, clear-headed and on a cleanse, suggests that Ava is using Caleb as an escape plan, and it looks now like HE'S the rational one, almost joking, hey buddy, why'd you cut your arm? You feeling okay? Punching the mirror? It's hard to not feel trapped — to know that even in his drunken rages, Nathan's true test all along was using Ava to trap Caleb into helping her escape. Caleb was selected because he was moral, smart, wouldn't be missed; Ava was designed for him. She cuts the power, escapes to the hallway, touching the masks wonderingly.
Nathan is scared, for the first time. He drops Caleb with a punch, arms himself, attempting to corral Ava, who is whispering to Kyoko. You don't hear what's said, but Kyoko has her knife again.
Ava tackles Nathan, he smashes her arm, starts dragging her back to her quarters, as Kyoko stabs him in the back - it's a different noise than cutting the fish, more of a squish. He manages to "kill" or disable her. As Ava pulls the knife out of his back, he turns, and she stabs him through the chest. It's slow, even graceful - as she kneels by him and takes his key card, his last word is her name. Kyoko didn't bleed, Nathan's blood is everywhere.
Session 7: Ava finds Caleb waking up from Nathan's punch - tells him to stay, goes to those closets, examines the prototypes. You think that she, like all women, is comparing herself to the others, and then she removes a fleshy arm and clicks it into place where her own damaged arm was. Peeling the flesh from the other girl's torso, she presses it gingerly to hers, piece by piece. The camera pans back out through each room of the house - peaceful now, lightened, Nathan dead in a puddle of blood, Ava covering herself in someone else's skin, puts on someone else's hair.
She dresses herself in white and walks into the hall where Kyoko and Nathan lie, and as Caleb sees all this for the first time, in shock, she steps into the elevator and is gone, and he is locked in. Gone - up through the airy, beautiful part of the house, out the door, into the woods, that same golden light they dreamed of, off on the helicopter mean for him.
He screams, trying to break the door down, and the sound is gone, like those opening scenes. He tries to power up the computers, break down the door. The last you see of him, he's slumped against the door, looking into that hall. The last you see of her, she's walking in a busy city square. And that's the end.
The name of this movie is Latin, borrowed from Greek. "Deus ex machina" is, as a plot device, the way out. Not for Nathan, presumably not for Caleb. Perhaps for Ava, but in the long term? What were those scars? Is this a loop, have they been here before? Was life as Caleb knew it just a simulation? We don't get to know.