EX MACHINA Movie Review – Rise of the Machine(s)
For the better part of a century, artificial intelligence, broadly defined as self-aware, sentient machines, has been a central preoccupation of science fiction, both in literature and on film, reflecting near-constant fears and anxieties about technology evolving beyond organic (human) limitations and usurping humanity’s alpha-species dominance. Most filmmakers, however, have dealt with artificial intelligence in the broadest, crudest terms, exploiting those fears and anxieties rather than exploring or examining them with any depth or complexity. That’s as much a function of the primacy of narrative – with, of course, a few notable exceptions (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) – but for Alex Garland, the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd (in addition to The Beach, the bestselling novel Garland adapted into his first screenplay), the demands of narrative (e.g., plot, characters, conflict) weren’t obstacles to be overcome as much as challenges to embrace for his feature-length debut, Ex Machina, an ambitious, provocative, minimalist sci-fi/psychological drama.
Ex Machina unfolds in a near future where “Blue Book,” a Google-inspired tech behemoth, maintains an even bigger global reach than its real-world counterpart. Founded by a former boy-genius (13 when he wrote the base code) turned mid-30s tech billionaire, dude-bro, and recluse, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). We first meet Nathan on his sprawling Norwegian retreat/super-secret research facility, practicing his boxing skills on a defenseless punching bag. We see Nathan through the awed eyes and ears of Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), the winner of a one-week week trip/vacation to Nathan’s estate. For Caleb, meeting the mythical (and mythologized) Nathan is akin to meeting a minor deity, but for Nathan, Caleb represents the means to an end, participating in a potentially world-changing experiment to determine of Caleb’s latest invention, Ava (Alicia Vikander), can pass the “Turing Test.”
In blunt form, Alan Turing’s test set up the prerequisites for a supposedly sentient, self-aware machine to pass as recognizably “human” in its interactions with a human interlocutor. Nathan’s spin on Turing’s test involves an entirely new variable: face-to-face meetings between the human participant and a robot not just built in human form, but gendered form as well. Nathan later explains Ava’s gender – and her programmed heterosexuality – as necessary to replicate human needs and desires, a potentially fascinating idea that unfortunately receives little screen time and thus, little extrapolation or development. Caleb and Ava meet regularly in a room dominated by glass partitions. They can talk (and they do), but they can’t physically interact. Over several days, Caleb and Ava’s meetings become increasingly intense and self-revelatory, a function of Ava’s programming, presumably developed with Caleb or someone like Caleb in mind, or actual sentience and self-awareness. Periodic power outages give Caleb and Ava a few brief moments to speak their minds unobserved, but like so much else in Ex Machina, Ava and her behavior could be the result of Nathan’s programming and planning, manipulating Caleb into a desired result (yay or nay on the Turing Test).
A fourth character, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s mute servant and sexual partner, perpetually hovers in the background, her background unknown, her intentions unclear. Kyoko seems to represent a racist/sexist caricature of Asian women, but she’s also the literal personification of Nathan’s desires, including his biases and prejudices. Nathan embodies toxic attitudes typical of dude-bros, alpha males with the tech wealth, power, and prestige to make anything and do anything they want. Caleb represents the flip side of Nathan. He’s smart, maybe even brilliant, but he’s just another programmer among thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Garland also contrasts Nathan’s raw physicality and hedonistic pursuits with Caleb’s non-physicality (Caleb becomes winded on a hike) and reserved, monk-like living style. Nathan exploits Caleb’s weaknesses and vulnerability, placing Ava and Ava’s irresistible narrative (she needs rescuing from her cruel, capricious creator) in front of Caleb.
Ava represents something else entirely, the unknown, the other certainly, but also the continent-sized divide between genders (assuming, of course, Ava’s gendered nature). That she may not need saving doesn’t cross Caleb’s mind; neither does the third alternative floated by Nathan late in the film: she might be duplicitous, performing for Caleb, placing herself firmly into the victim role in Caleb’s rescue narrative. Garland seems to suggest that it’s not self-awareness, including the awareness of mortality, that defines as human or an A.I. as truly sentient, but duplicity, deceit, and deception. The “To err is human” line no longer applies, at least not in Garland’s formulation, but “To lie is human” seems to be. Garland goes deeper than most in examining the issues around A.I. and whether, like Stephan Hawking recently, suggested, humanity as a species is screwed if self-aware, sentient machines become fact, not fiction (we may well be), though “deeper” remains a relative term. Ultimately, however, Ex Machina shakes off its intellectual pretensions and fully embraces its sci-fi/thriller predecessors. Narrative, as always, dictates everything that follows.