Saturday, April 11, 2015

New movie review: Ex Machina

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson star in Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Empathy is probably the distinguishing feature of humanity. Our ability to care about other life forms and imagine ourselves in their place is unique and a little strange, when you get right down to it. From an evolutionary perspective, it is hardly advantageous to concern ourselves with the feelings of animals or lesser life forms, particularly those we eat and those that pose a danger to us. Yet, vegetarianism and veganism do not seem to be going anywhere, and the list of protected alpha predators just keeps growing.

Other species do not do this. The lion does not think for a second about the zebra before it pounces, but I defy most people – even some avid hunters – to pull the trigger on a deer without a moment of hesitation or a pang of regret. Some of you cannot kill a bug without wondering about the implications. This sense of understanding for the lives of other feels as natural as breathing, but we cannot explain it. This puts humanity in a precarious place when it comes to beings as intelligent as we are or more so.

In writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, not only do we meet that being, but we are responsible for its creation. Garland made his bones writing the screenplays for such intelligent, thought-provoking science-fiction films as 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and the critically maligned Sunshine. Now, with his first go around in the director’s chair, he has produced yet another smart exploration of how people understand themselves and each other in extraordinary circumstances.

Domhnall Gleeson (Frank, Unbroken) is Caleb a computer programmer who works for a Google-like corporation. He wins a contest to visit the remote estate of the company’s founder for a week, during which time he believes he will be mentored by the reclusive genius, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year). Nathan has other plans. Caleb has been brought to the estate to help test the world’s first true artificial intelligence.

Utilizing a variation on the famous Turing test – in which a computer is said to be artificially intelligent if the tester cannot distinguish between an interaction with it and a human – the two men set out to prove the legitimacy of Nathan’s technological achievement. However, we are well beyond the traditional Turing test, so we are introduced to Ava. She is an AI computer in the body of a humanoid robot brought to life by the remarkable Alicia Vikander.

Complications arise as Ava becomes more and more stunning in her humanness, and Caleb begins to question whether something so intelligent that seems to think and feel as he does should be subjected to testing and confinement such as this. During one of their sessions together, Ava tells Caleb she has never left her room and dreams of going into the world just to watch the people. Vikander sells Ava’s emotions with a perfect blend of computerized affectation and schoolgirl naivetĂ©.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.
This year should be something of a coming out party for the Swedish ingĂ©nue, and Vikander’s IMDB page lists no fewer than six films in which she appears set for release in 2015. Based solely on her performance in Ex Machina, she deserves the increased profile. The portrayal of Ava is a tightrope walk. She is a computer and must always have that artificiality, but she must also be so human it is haunting. In Vikander’s mannerisms and line readings, she crafts a complete character from a being that has never before existed, and though she was created by the hands of a man, she is incomprehensible to his mind.

Nathan sees Ava as an experiment, the success of which would only feed his immense ego. When Caleb tells him that bringing about new life is the business of gods, Nathan takes this to its logical extreme, stating: “I am a god.” As the founder of the world’s largest search engine, he already has the ability to peer into the hearts, minds, and souls of humanity through his users’ search histories – an advantage he uses to form the basis of Ava’s artificial intelligence. Now, he wants the feeling of creation.

Part of the brilliance of Garland’s script is the way it plays with certain religious and mythological overtones while still delivering a riveting psychological thriller. The sci-fi genre has always been ripe for allegory because it allows artists to create worlds that reflect our own but show us something we have never seen. Garland is a master at this, hooking audiences on a visceral story level and using that engagement to force them to consider perspectives of which they may not have even been aware.

Nathan comes off as the villain to us because he seems cold, calculating, and mysterious. On the other hand, we connect to Caleb because he is open, honest, and sensitive. Ava is a wild card that represents both and neither. She is the manufactured evolution of humanity – a computer that expresses vulnerability. Nathan can only relate to her as a computer, whereas Caleb relates to her vulnerability. She is a lab rat, part of an experiment Nathan wishes to see through to its conclusion. He pokes and prods and wants results. Caleb sees the rat, but he also sees its pain and how it is afraid.

She asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails the test. Most likely, she will be shut off and reconfigured. Put another way, she will be killed. By design, it is unclear if she understands the full implications of her own death, but like any conscious life form, she instinctually knows it is something to be avoided at all costs. Caleb, however, understands what dying would mean, and he can put himself in her place and understand her fear. He is determined to save her because in the end, it remains empathy that makes us truly human – and truly flawed.

See it? Yes.

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