Ex Machina (2015)
” To erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”
Ex Machina (2015)
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Synopsis: A young programmer is selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
While the directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland might have invoked the wrath of many feminists, Ex Machina certainly offers a challenging viewpoint on the implications of an exponential rate of technological growth which is nearing the point at which the intellect of the creator is at risk of being surpassed by that of his creation. AI has been inevitable since the 1970s, according to hip tech guru Nathan (Oscar Isaac – Agora, 10 Years). One day, he says, ‘the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa’. Which raises two questions, really: How do we prevent a situation in which we become inferior (and therefore vulnerable) to our creations; and at what point has the consciousness of an AI developed sufficiently enough for them to be entitled to the same rights as a human being?
Nathan plans to be the architect of this evolution. Hidden away like some Bond villain in his luxurious pad built into the side of a mountain, he has constructed a whole series of artificial lifeforms in the female form, each a little more sophisticated than the last. Now he needs to test whether the latest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander – Seventh Son), can pass for human. To do this he conducts a lottery amongst the members of his corporation, with the lucky winner – a young man named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson – About Time) – invited to spend a week with his boss (I can think of better prizes, to be honest). However, the relationship between Nathan and Caleb, which was already awkward from the outset, grows increasingly tense when Caleb learns that Ava, with whom he has developed a growing attachment, faces termination as Nathan begins building what he expects to be the finished article.
Initially, Nathan comes across as the kind of hip techno wonder-kid that is fast becoming a cliché both in movies and real life. He pads barefoot around his domain, dressed in t-shirt and jogging bottoms, and has a habit of calling Caleb ‘dude’. Beneath this deceptively laid-back exterior, however, is a man whose fierce intelligence compels him to dominate everything and everyone around him. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. He drinks like a champion, and then undertakes punishing sessions at a punchbag to detox. Ava’s warning to Caleb during a power blackout that Nathan isn’t to be trusted isn’t difficult for him to believe. His God complex is obvious, his motives unclear.
In one respect, the key to the film is touched upon a couple of times by Nathan and Caleb when they refer to the distractive power of the magician’s glamorous assistant. We, the audience, are deceived into believing, as we watch an inexperienced man’s feelings grow for an attractive AI, that we’re being asked to contemplate the complex moral and ethical issues surrounding human interaction with AI. And on one level we are, but as we focus on the argument and counter-argument put forward by the deeds, thoughts and attitudes of the two men, we, like them, fail to notice an all-together more important consequence of Nathan’s achievements, even though it is happening right under our noses. It’s a clever conceit on the part of Garland, the crystallisation of a universally neglected issue (whether we yet realise it or not) played out as a four-hander (a mute sex model named Kyoko also has a major part to play). Nathan and Caleb’s failure to comprehend the real issues, their preoccupation with matters of secondary importance, results in tragedy.
Ava is imprisoned behind a glass wall (which is scarred by a telling star-shaped crack), and Garland films most of her scenes in a way that emphasises the fact that she has been created by a male to please the male gaze. Feminists might complain about this decision as it undoubtedly objectifies the female form but, given Nathan’s arrogant nature, to film these scenes in any other way would have been something of a cop-out. Where Garland does fall down is in later scenes which feature lingering shots of full-frontal female nudity. He might have gotten away with it had those shots been Nathan’s point of view, but they’re not, which means the nudity feels gratuitous. Ironically, the fact that this aspect of Ex Machina has generated so much discussion in some quarters merely reinforces how easy it is for important matters to be side-lined. It’s a regrettable error of judgment which mars an otherwise intriguing, thought-provoking and quietly powerful meditation on a possible future that awaits us all.
(Reviewed 16th November 2015)