Ex Machina asks what it means to be human (my review)

A- Science fiction

  • Written and directed by Alex Garland

I’ve learned to confront new big-screen science fiction with lowered expectations–especially when it deals with man-vs.-machine conflicts. So I went in to Ex Machina expecting to be disappointed. But the disappointments (for the most part)  never came. Even the final act was intelligent and surprising–and I didn’t think that was allowed in this sort of movie.

But then, it really isn’t this sort of movie. Set almost entirely indoors with a limited set of characters, Ex Machina is long on dialog and short on action. And what do the characters talk about? Intelligence, emotions, sentience, and what it means to be human. That last question is the key one, since one of main characters isn’t actually human.

We enter this world through the eyes of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for the largest and most powerful tech company in the world–think of Apple and Google put together. When we first meet Caleb, he’s winning a company lottery. The award? He gets to spend a week with Nathan, the corporation’s reclusive founder and owner.

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One of the richest men in the world, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is clearly not running on all thrusters. He lives in a combination mansion and research facility in a remote, sub-arctic, pretty-much-deserted part of the world. Security is massive; cameras are everywhere and you need your cardkey to get into or out of any room (you can see an obvious plot point right there). His only companion is his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn’t speak or understand English. He’s brilliant and productive, but he’s also an alcoholic, drowning himself in booze on a regular basis.

Nathan has brought Caleb to his home for a purpose. He’s been working on artificial intelligence, and has now created a machine that he believes can truly think. He wants Caleb to run this machine through a Turing test.

The machine isn’t just a computer, but a robot built to resemble a young, attractive woman (Alicia Vikander). Her name is Ava. The film’s heart is built around Caleb’s extended discussions with Ava, as he tries to figure out if she’s truly sentient or just an excellent simulation. They talk, they build a rapport, and she even flirts with him. Slowly, they learn to care for each other.

Early on, I found myself ticking off the many absurdities in the story. Why not build AI in a computer before the far more difficult task of trying it on a robot? Why give it a gender and even a libido? And how can you do a Turing test if the judge can clearly see that he’s talking to a robot. (Ava’s face looks very human, but much of her body is super thin or transparent. The CGI that makes this possible is excellent.)

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But as the movie progresses, all those objections fall away. Nathan is, after all, a narcissist, and just the sort of man who would want to create a sexual, apparently female robot . And his ideas for proving that a machine is sentient don’t match entirely with Turing’s, although his arguments struck me as valid.

As Caleb talks with Ava and, separately, with Nathan, they bring up issues about what makes someone human, or not human. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? If you create a sentient machine, do you have a moral right to replace it with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here?

There is one scene that disappointed me. It’s bloody and gruesome, but that wasn’t the problem. The character’s actions didn’t seem believable, and they appeared to have no consequences–and they should have had many. I assumed at one point that it was a dream, but a line of dialog later in the film ruined that assumption.

Early on, I guessed how the movie would end. Then, to my delight, my prediction proved utterly and completely wrong. The real ending came as a surprise, and was, in retrospect, the only ending that could have made sense.