by Philip Price
This is a story of ideas. A story of very precise ideas. It is the ideas that make the story and not the other way around. This is a film that if you were to take all the attributes of any major summer blockbuster and put them on the opposite end of the spectrum it would be something similar to what we have here. In essence, this is people in rooms talking. As always though, it is the human mind and the countless contemplations we can come up with when given an interesting topic that fuel how fascinating such a simple set-up can be. There is no need for explosions, action or even a convoluted plot when instead all of the adrenaline these things strive to rouse in an audience are done through the power of conversation, of possibilities and of our own interpretations. Needless to say, writer/director Alex Garland's directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” is fascinating not just for the ideas it brings to the table, but for how well it executes them. It is a combination of many factors coming together to form a completely harmonious final product that feels labored over to the point of near perfection. It is clear this began with the script in that the aforementioned basic set-up doesn't take a single line of dialogue for granted. Garland is communicating tone, thoughts and themes among many other facets with his script and as he brings in actors to bring them to life these things only become more enhanced. As he brings in the production designer things are only implicated further. Everything about the film builds off one another until we reach a point where we're almost suffocating in the amalgam of philosophy, technology and mystery the film presents. That is, of course, until it reprieves us from the weight of those implications just long enough for us to catch a breath before delving back in to explore the unknown a little further. To put it bluntly, the film is enthralling in a way that is almost cryptic. There is nothing to warm up to here because it is a decidedly cold film, but despite that coldness this story of ideas pulls you in by the nature of its bleakness hitting a little too close to home.
Garland wastes no time in delving into his ideas as we are quickly introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a 26-year old coder at a major search engine company akin to Google known here as BlueBook. We see he is the winner of an internal competition to spend a week with the mysterious and reclusive CEO of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once Caleb arrives in this remote, kind of secret estate that is built into the side of a mountain he learns he is not there to necessarily get to know his boss better, but to participate in a test. Nathan lets Caleb in on the secret that he has been working on the creation of an A.I. and that Caleb, should he choose to accept the challenge, will be at the heart of this technological revolution by conducting a Turing test on Nathan's creation. A brief synopsis of the Turing test is that it is basically the test of a computer’s intelligence. It requires that a human being should not be able to distinguish the machine from another human being. In order for Caleb to go about this he will conduct one session a day with Nathan's creation to decide whether or not she passes. Typically, the test would be conducted without the human having access to what the A.I. looks like, but Nathan's goal is to have Caleb consciously know and talk to his robot while eventually forgetting he is indeed speaking with a robot. Crazy, right? You would think so. That Nathan has decided to make this a female robot that exudes a kind of sexuality, manipulative qualities and an acute self-awareness is not lost on Caleb and is at the same time both amazing in that it's been able to be achieved and frightening in what it suggests. Where is the line drawn and where does this creation cross over from simply being a product to that of an actual life form? This has always been the question-what if our organs and bones are seen as nothing more than software to our own creator? Would they then not feel bad wiping out our existence without a second thought? These are the types of abstract, profound, provocative yet clearly logical questions that Garland poses and that he executes beautifully with the help of Rob Hardy's gorgeous cinematography and a chilling score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
In a way, the film passes its own tests as we as an audience come to recognize Nathan's invention that he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander) as a being we care about. She is haunting in her innocence, quiet in her sincerity and through the building of her intelligence through the unimaginable number of searches done through Nathan's company that he (legally) used to create her she is also intimidating in her ability to progress. She is discretely complicated in that there would seem to have to be a certain capacity for her emotions, but where that line is drawn is again what is up for grabs. Influencing the precision of the writing is how well it is brought to life by the actors and their sleek, but claustrophobic surroundings. Gleeson, who we see as something of the lead, is presented as an intelligent if not average guy in every other facet of life. As much as Caleb is there to test Ava he is there to be observed by Nathan in how he chooses to interact and how Caleb's reactions to he and Ava's interactions succeed in whatever Nathan's ultimate goal might be. Gleeson is a solid bit of casting in that he embodies an everyman while easily possessing an ability to express critical thinking. He is a worthy opponent of sorts given Nathan, in his solitude, has become something of a man unsure of how to fit in. As Nathan, Isaac is simply magnificent. It seems the guy can do anything and the almost chilled out mentality he presents, despite feeling somewhat forced so as to better meld with Caleb's everyman, is unexpected in that this is a genius who has now cut himself off from the world due to the fact he's probably always felt alone. The details (or lack thereof) we are given early on about both men hint at traits that not only play critically into the plot, but come to play a role in revelations that don't resort to juvenile or expected conclusions, but rather those that push the envelope further. Vikander is indisputably the star here though. Through her Ava we see a character we know isn't human and it is through her subtle performance choices such as dialect, tone and accuracy of her voice that we feel we can see her mind maturing and compiling the information until she fills out a pool of knowledge large enough to make her aspirations a reality.
Over the last few years, filmmakers and writers have become more and more fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence. It is an idea that has always been present of course, but as we get closer to the actual realization of such a thing (give Siri a body and we're one step closer) the consequences of it become all the more real and thus all the more frightening. You can look to Her, which is likely the closest in terms of what these films are saying about developing convincing relationships with artificial beings and their inability to stay with us for too long before moving on due to their superiority, but there are also films like “Transcendence” and “Chappie” that have come out within the last year or so that attempted to tackle the consequences of creating a God-like being who is omniscient and capable of knowing all. While “Transcendence” spun too many ideas that it couldn't keep track of “Chappie” gave us the cliff notes for what make up the most interesting discussions in “Ex Machina.” In Garland's film we are introduced to the idea not only that a sentient being can exist and be raised from a child-like mentality to that of a fully-functional adult being (like in “Chappie”), but the HOW of that type of artificial intelligence coming into existence (unlike in “Chappie”). This is the idea of not just addressing what we or a robot might be thinking, but how we come to think the way we do (whether by nature or nurture) and if that kind of intelligence is a natural stage in evolution, an extension of the human race if you will, or if this is simply another example of man trying to play God and devising our own demise because of it. Early in the film Caleb makes a statement to Nathan about how if the artificial intelligence he's created is as close to actual human life as Ava seems that it would make him something of a God. This idea of creation is at the heart of the film in that while Nathan is the father of his creation in the same way the common Christian God is viewed as the Father of us all, it is his creation that is the all-knowing being we typically assume a God to be. Given what occurs in the film, the dichotomy between the creator and the superior being leads to countless other questions and theories of how much the good that can come from such an invention is worth when given the possibility of how much bad could also come of it. Is it worth it? Is the pursuit of advancement worth our eventual extinction?