“What happens to me if I fail your test?”
The year’s most interesting film? You’d be hard pressed to find a rival with the same scientific clout as this, Alex Garland’s directorial debut. Starring three of the biggest up-and-coming names in Hollywood, Ex Machina seizes us by the arm and propels us through a maze of challenging science fiction. Drawing inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as Ken Russell’s Altered States, the seed for Ex Machina was sown in Garland’s mind when he was a child learning about basic coding and computer programming. Determined to retain creative freedom, Garland worked on a comparatively small budget of $15 million, which had the added benefit of creating a plausible and not too distant reality.
Devoid of any real action sequences and dominated by its claustrophobic nature, Ex Machina is, therefore, heavily reliant on its three lead performances. Initially, the audience’s way into the film is through Domnhall Gleeson’s character Caleb. He’s the ‘average’ Joe who’s plucked from obscurity courtesy of a competition which whisks him off to a secluded location to spend a week with the head of the search engine company for which he works.
As mysterious billionaire genius Nathan, Oscar Isaac slides effortlessly between amusing and terrifying, whilst all the while retaining a charismatic edge – the former achieving no greater manifestation than when Nathan dims the lights and turns up the music. At times we think that Nathan has a God complex. At other points, it seems more like he considers himself an instrument in the next stage of evolution.
Between these two characters of flesh and blood comes Ava (Alicia Vikander), a prototype humanoid robot made from wires and synthetic skin. With Nathan observing from a distance, Caleb and Ava quickly form a connection, one which becomes the central thrust of the film. Confined to her apartment, Ava appears to be at the mercy of the power struggle which begins to develop between Caleb and Nathan. Vikander is perfectly cast. Her every precise, balletic movement – informed by her prior training as a principal dancer with the Royal Swedish Ballet School – combined with subtle mechanical whirrings added in post-production, create surely the most convincing onscreen visual representation of robotic consciousness.
Centrally, the film is concerned with the nature of artificial intelligence. However, unlike previous attempts at this subject matter – see Spielberg’s A.I. – Ex Machina is more interested in exploring the idea of affection between an artificial and a human being, and the impact this has on what we understand about consciousness. The notion of a human having feelings for an artificially intelligent being is not new. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character develops a relationship with an operating system, mischievously voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Ex Machina has a darker bent. It focuses more on the manipulative consequences that affection can lead to.
The film’s ending, which we won’t spoil, leaves the audience pondering the consequences of the reality of AI. If machines became self-aware, would we bequeath them the same basic rights that we enjoy as humans? As Ava asks Caleb, when he admits that her fate is not up to him, “Why is it up to anyone?” Similarly, how would self-aware humanoids view humanity? Would they be able to empathise with others on a selective basis, as we do? Or would they cast their eyes around, shrug their shoulders and head for a meeting with Skynet?
In the way it is shot, Ex Machina harks back to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. You could almost say that the concept of surveillance plays as integral a role as any of the three main characters. Every twist and turn is predicated on the notion of who might be watching at any one time. Nathan himself is the CEO of a global internet search engine. Once the Turing test begins, he keeps a watchful eye on proceedings between Caleb and Ava. Moreover, when explaining how he came to create the singularity from which Ava draws her uniqueness, Nathan reveals that he struck a deal with the world’s phone networks to gain access to virtually every person on Earth. The film plays with the notion of whether knowing more about someone else can inform our sense of self.
As if the film didn’t feel claustrophobic enough, Garland throws in the element of Ava’s incarceration. Despite displaying outward signs of consciousness, she is not free to go as she pleases. She is a prisoner against her will. At this point, the film enters the field of morality, posing the question of how you should treat something if you come to realise that it is, to all extents and purposes, your equal.
Ex Machina is without doubt one of the smartest and most engaging science fiction films to emerge this century. In the character of Ava, the film challenges us to question what it is we understand by the term humanity. It deals not only with the central idea of what it means to have consciousness, but also forces us to confront the reality that we can never really, truly know what someone else is thinking or about to do.