Artificial Intelligence is one of the subjects that preoccupied humans in the recent decades. Movies & literature continues to contemplate on whether there’s anything profound or central to humanity that will remain unchanged even after the emergence of non-human intelligence. Novelist and screen writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut “Ex Machina” (2015) questions on how an A.I. could acquire or examine our ethical and moral considerations apart from adapting to our burgeoning intelligence. Like Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), “Ex Machina” starts as a treatise on A.I., but eventually ends up poking at the idea of being human. The film is a part psychological thriller and part philosophical sci-fi drama, which often makes us to use the adjective ‘Kubrickian’.
The wordless opening sequence of the film introduces us our 26 year old protagonist Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a nerdish computer programmer working for a giant international corporation called ‘BlueBook’. The corporate seems to be the combination of Facebook, Google, and Apple. BlueBook is a gargantuan & dominant search engine, founded a young genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The invention has made Nathan as one of world’s richest man. In the opening sequence, we see Caleb winning a sort of in-house lottery, the prize for which is to spend one week in the lavish Alaskan research facility with boss Nathan. A helicopter takes Caleb to a secluded mountain island in the Alaskan wilderness. The research facility is largely buried underground. The high-tech, modernist structure of glass & steel is built around the untamed wilderness. Despite the luxuriousness, the mysterious key cards & Nathan’s detached manner gives an impression that the facility could very well serve as a dystopian prison.
After signing a lot of atypical non-disclosure agreements, Nathan announces that Caleb is here to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), an intelligent robot with a beautiful face. Caleb has to perform ‘Turing Test’ to determine whether Ava can feel genuine human emotions apart from possessing human-level intelligence. On the outset interacts like a human, owning a childlike innocence. Despite Ava’s remarkably beautiful face, her abdomen, backside of skull, and limbs are covered only with a slender metallic mesh, partly showing the inner circuitry. Although Turing Test means interacting with a physically unseen artificial intelligence, Nathan clearly displays the mechanical nature of Ava to Caleb and challenges him to test the genuine human qualities within that machinery structure.
Each day Caleb has a session with Ava and his interactions are watched over through CCTV by Nathan. Ava is extremely intelligent and also develops some kind of crush on Caleb, but during short bursts of electricity cuts (which are caused by her, shutting down Nathan’s cameras) Ava aks not to trust Nathan. Caleb, the guy who has lost both of his parents at the age of 15 and leads an life of a recluse, gets enamored by Ava’s ingenuousness & smartness. He wants to free Ava, especially after Nathan informs that he would eradicate all of Ava’s memories, when he subsequently build new versions of her. Nathan does possess skeletons in his closet and his Japanese servant is strikingly odd. But, the central questions is whether Ava has really fallen in love with Caleb or else she is pretending to possess the human emotion called ‘love’ to just escape from the facility.
The story of a mad scientist creating a sentient being is a theme that has been pondered over in movies from Dr. Frankenstein’s days. Although, “Ex Machina” follows such an old plot trajectory, it couldn’t be easily dismissed as an uninspired, derivative work. Director Alex Garland presents a lot of though provoking scientific as well as philosophical questions to engage our intellect. As a novelist (“The Beach”, “Tesseract”) and screen writer (“28 Days Later”, “Sunshine”, “Never Let Me Go”), Garland has always tapped on to the psychological aspect of the people, living in a utopian, claustrophobic community. He is interested in showcasing how humans give significance to things like intelligence & species survival over emotions that make us human and gives us the singularity. Despite the predictable story beats, Garland’s direction & his eye for details makes “Ex Machina” an intriguing sci-fi.
The de-saturated palette as the opulent environment itself gradually comes off as soulless and oppressive. The scene where Nathan explains on why he made Ava to be female and how he used his search engine in building Ava are some of the smartly contrived sci-fi ideas. There aren’t enough nuances in the way Garland lays out his themes or in the way he refers to everything from ‘Through the Looking Glass’ to Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb quote to Jackson Pollack’s painting to Harold Ramis’ Ghostbusters. But, these unsubtle acknowledgements plus glaring narrative flaws (especially towards the end) could be overlooked to some extent, since “Ex Machina” being Garland’s first attempt at direction. The standard Garland themes are also elevated by the excellent production design and brilliant & confounding performances.
Alicia Vikander truly lends a spirit to the machine Ava. Her ballerina pose and subtle facial twitches are diffused with an unbelievable preciseness. Despite looking like an automaton, she nourishes enough facial expressions to convince us that Ava is an organic being. Nathan’s characterization could best be described as ‘Dr. Frankenstein of Silicon Valley’, but Oscar Isaac lends impressive gravitas to make Nathan, an enigma. He comes off as honest as well as ingratiating. His lack of moral dimension is off-putting, but still his deadpan brilliance casts a spell on us. If Nathan was played as one-dimensional villain, this film surely wouldn’t have been as satirical and tense as it is. Domhall Glesson (plays Caleb) comes off as the audience surrogate, learning things as we do and wrestling with moral implications.
“Ex Machina” (108 minutes) is a stylish, cerebral thriller, which manages to imbue speculative ideas on how humanity would look like in the absence of genuine emotions. The narrative predictability and flaws doesn’t make it a modern sci-fi masterpiece, but it does provoke our thoughts.