Ex Machina

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 10, 2015

A scene from 'Ex Machina'
A scene from 'Ex Machina'  

It's a conundrum as old as the idea of a humanoid automaton: If we can build a machine that is so lifelike that we can't tell the difference, then is there actually any difference between a person made of flesh and bone, and one made of silicon, carbon composite, and whatever transparent, pliable substance gives Ava (Alicia Vikander) her sexy curves?

Ava is an AI, or an artificial intelligence, which is to say, she's the thinking, learning, and sometimes scheming creation of a human inventor. His name is Nathan (Oscar Isaac); he's evidently a genius in any number of fields, from computer programming to physics to materials sciences, a skill set he needs for the creation of artificial female companionship in the high-tech workshop space of his remote, underground house. We're asked from the start to believe that Nathan is richer than God, and maybe divinely gifted in other ways, too; he's the wunderkind CEO of a Google-like company called Bluebook -- an interesting choice of names, as Project Bluebook is the near-mythical Air Force project that investigated another kind of non-human intelligence, that supposedly responsible for UFOs.

But there's no one in uniform at Nathan's gleaming, minimalist redoubt. It's just him, Ava, a servant named Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno), and -- for one week -- an employee from Nathan's company named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). It might be that Nathan feels he is too close to the problem, or perhaps he's just bursting with excitement to tell someone, but Nathan has brought Caleb to his home in order to get some independent validation that Ava isn't just a very cleverly programmed computer with a shapely form and a lovely face that she wears like a mask over her see-through cranium. Nathan wants Caleb to subject Ava to a Turing test -- that is, to determine whether Ava is, in any consistently recognizable sense, a machine that relies solely on its pre-programmed algorithms in offering a simulacrum of thought and emotional response, or whether she might actually be a living entity in her own right.

There's no more tricky proposition. After all, human consciousness is such a mysterious, labyrinthine black box that human beings have trouble believing that other human beings, never mind machines, are, in fact, fully alive and cognizant -- just ask anyone who has incited or participated in genocide, warfare, or even the cultural clashes that have marred civilization throughout history. Where else do you think all those zombie TV shows and movies come from, if not a widespread suspicion among people of all ideological stripes that the people who disagree with them have lost, or never had, some essential component of their humanity, and now represent a slavering, mindless threat? Garland certainly knows all this; he wrote the screenplay for the 2002 hit zombie flick "28 Days Later."

It would be easy and pleasant to accept Ava as living and conscious. As Caleb and Ava talk over the course of a number of "sessions" throughout the week, she demonstrates all the overt characteristics of a human being: She uses natural language, asks Caleb about himself, offers him samples of her attempts at creativity (she likes to draw), and even pulls on a wig and some simple clothing. In sum, she flirts with him. She also takes advantage of erratic fluctuations in the power supply to plant a seed of doubt in Caleb's mind about Nathan's trustworthiness and intentions.

That's not hard to do. While Ava is smooth, friendly, and direct, Nathan is much less likable; burly and physical in a way you wouldn't expect a brainiac to be, given to spontaneous renditions of elaborate dance routines and workouts at the punching bag. Nathan is both intimidating and intuitively familiar; he guzzles beer and subjects Caleb to discomfiting sessions of his own, and he has a tendency to lay around in his living room at 3:00 a.m., glowering and swigging booze in the dark. He seems very much like the sort of reclusive genius who would live in a house that's so hard to get to, so high-end, and so sterile. Forget the puzzle of human consciousness; Nathan's house is a kind of black box, and Nathan himself gives very little away.

It's enough to give Caleb a case of "Blade Runner"-esque heebie-jeebies; after a while, Caleb begins to entertain the paranoid fear than maybe he, himself, is another one of Nathan's creations, and Nathan is testing him. (It's not an idea entirely without merit; Gleeson did play an AI, after all, on an episode of "Black Mirror," and seeing him harbor existential worries about his true nature in this film constitutes a cinematic meta-pun.)

Of course, there is another possibility: Maybe Ava is the one doing the testing, for reasons of her own. Movies about AIs tend to fret an awful lot about this sort of thing; whether it's "The Terminator" franchise or the silicon dream-land of "The Matrix," or even the cold war fantasy of 1970's "Colossus: The Forbin Project," the worry always seems to be that machines will prove their intelligence not through airy philosophical means, but rather by way of brute force, seizing control for their own benefit -- a worry that places the truest proof of authentic life on the imperatives of selfish genes or, in the case of artificial intelligence, selfish memes.

It's a worthwhile enough question: Can we avoid instilling our fundamental tendency toward devious self interest into machines that look like us, and are designed to mimic our ways of movement, thought, and expression? But it's also a trite question, if not handled properly, and Garland -- who sought, not entirely successfully, to explore the dark reaches of the human psyche in the 2007 space-set thriller "Sunlight," and delicately probed the humanity of clones produced for medical exploitation in his film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "Never Let Me Go" -- doesn't juggle the various possibilities quite deftly enough. He allows this film, his directorial debut, to lapse too readily into formula.

It's disappointing: What starts out as a smart psychological thriller with an edge of speculative fiction proves to be a clockwork amusement built from standard parts and not wound sufficiently to get it through its full running time.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.