What makes us human? It’s a philosophical puzzle that goes back as far as human history is recorded, something we’ve wrestled with since the dawn of time. In the modern era, it was savant Alan Turing who suggested the definitive test for the “humanness” of an artificial intelligence, now known as the Turing Test: if you interact with an unknown entity through a computer and cannot ascertain whether it’s an AI or an actual person, then it should be considered human.
Cinematically this has been a ripe area for exploration too, including the chilling 70’s sci-fi film The Forbin Project, the teen-focused Wargames and, of course, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, almost all science fiction set in the future assumes that we will have sentient, self-aware computers, they just disagree on how malevolent they’ll be. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics might not be enough to save us after the singularity, the moment when “they” become more intelligent than we humans are.
Into the middle of this drops the fascinating Ex Machina, which revolves around the AI robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who has been created by quirky genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and is going to be evaluated in a face-to-face Turing Test by the idealistic loner Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The key question becomes profound: If Ava is sufficiently self-aware to have a chance of passing this Turing Test, what happens if she doesn’t actually pass? And what behaviors will it inspire in her to improve her chances of having Caleb confirm she is indeed sentient?
Director Alex Garland brings a surreal, at times metaphysical tone to the film with its beautiful wilderness setting where inventor Nathan has built his underground research station below a Fallingwater-inspired ultra-modern home. The cold, unfeeling beauty of the home, where concrete walls and rough stone from the existing terrain directly parallel the cold finish and appearance of Ava, a robot designed to be beautiful in all but the kinesthetic.
Initially thrilled to win an internal competition inside the fictitious “Bluebook” Corporation, Caleb is flown out to Nathan’s research facility via helicopter and has to find his own way to the facility once dropped off: There are no roads, not even trails leading to the home. Nathan, founder of Bluebook and a man unimaginably wealthy, acts as just “one of the guys”, with them fist-bumping and calling each other dude. But Nathan’s a mad genius wrestling with the implications of his work: he’s constantly under the influence of various substances and typically wakes up with a massive hangover.
Caleb is enchanted by Ava and falls quickly in love with her. Her design is a tantalizing mix of unabashed post-modern nudity — transparent skin where sensors, servos and structure are visible — and her technological sexual identity, where she’s perpetually “dressed” in a sports bra and form-fitting shorts. Why that design? Is it part of how Nathan hopes to trick Caleb into saying that she’s sentient? Later when she dresses it’s a shock to realize that she’s been walking around in her underwear and “skin” for the entire first portion of the film.
Ava gradually demonstrates feelings for Caleb and soon the two of them are conspiring against Nathan, who has some secrets of his own, hinted at by his unpleasant behavior towards the Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Can Ava really have feelings towards anyone, or feelings at all, or has it (she?) identified behaviors that will evince a specific reaction that can help her attain a goal she seeks? Is Caleb a proto-human falling for a sexy robot, or an easily manipulated, emotionally-driven geek who is easily defeated?
As one would hope with a story of this profundity, Ex Machina asks more questions than it answers and while it gets a bit sidetracked near the end as the depths of Nathan’s relationship with his creations becomes abundantly clear, the comeuppance is no surprise. And yet other aspects of the film’s climax are a surprise and will leave you unsettled.
The production team does an excellent job with the film too, both the stunning exteriors and the cold, high-tech interiors of the house / laboratory. Whether anything as complex could actually be accomplished in a lab of this size with this few resources is left for us to ponder. Suspension of disbelief, and all that. Unfortunately, the film’s also somewhat slow paced and the dialog isn’t particularly crisp or fast paced, sometimes getting lost in what’s almost a parody of Millenial-speak, and there’s an awkward self-awareness to the entire production that can rear up, ensuring you realize The Importance Of This Scene.
Still, too much modern sci-fi is about the special effects, not the interplay between the people in the story, and Ex Machina is refreshing in that regard, with the complex relationship both between Caleb and Ava and between Nathan and Caleb. Who serves what purpose for the other, and what’s each of their ultimate goals for the relationship?
Go see Ex Machina. Then ask yourself how you’d react to Siri or Cortana if she happened to be in a very attractive container…