Stephen Hawking has warned us that the growing power of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Technology has not yet reached the point where a robot has passed the Turing test—fooling people into believing they’re talking to a human. But screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland’s debut feature takes us to the very moment of that technological birth. What might it look like when we get there?
Pretty damn slinky, as it happens. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an ace computer programmer who wins a competition to visit the remote home of his Silicon Valley company’s charismatic billionaire founder (Oscar Isaac). Caleb’s task is to test his boss’s new invention: Ava, a robot whose glowing LEDs and whirring servos combine with a lithe feminine form and the angelic features of actor Alicia Vikander. Caleb isn’t just convinced, he’s smitten, but the more he learns about the relationship between Ava and her volatile, hard-drinking creator, the more concerned he becomes for her future.
There are elements of romance and dystopian thriller here, though Garland’s art-house pacing keeps us waiting for these threads to emerge, lining up thoughtful dialogue exchanges between man and machine. Vikander’s spellbinding, not-quite-human presence (her synthetic skin is silky yet creepy) keeps us watching. But an obvious twist and some clunky developments—how about those sudden power cuts?—drain much of the credibility from a story that promised so much. A bit more intelligence wouldn’t have gone amiss.