Ex Machina

By Jones, Nick | Science Fiction Film and Television, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Ex Machina


Jones, Nick, Science Fiction Film and Television


Ex Machina (Alex Garland UK 2015). DNA Films/Film4. Region 2. Widescreen 2.35:1. £11.99.

A sharp thriller about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina is written and directed by Alex Garland. Although radically unlike Garland's recent work writing and producing the excellent action film Dredd (Travis UK/US/India/South Africa 2012), Ex Machina's small cast, pessimistic philosophy and third-act drift into violent revenge clearly recall his earlier work scripting Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... (UK 2002) and Sunshine (UK/US 2007). Garland's writing is often marked by a disquieting tension between traditional dramatic models and the allure of formless chaos, so his tightly calibrated script here is a surprise, as is his subdued, intense eye for detail as a director. On one level the film explores the issues and ethics of artificial life - subjects also at the heart of Kazuo Ishaguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (UK/US), which Garland adapted for Mark Romanek 's direction in 2010. More interestingly, Ex Machina takes aim at a kind of masculinised digital narcissism in which technological innovation allows for the indulgence of limitless self-absorption. The film's narrative may take place in a vacuum (four characters, a single location), but its ideas are expansive.

We begin with the wispy Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a coder for the very Google-esque tech company Blue Book, as he apparently wins a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company. This opening scene, with its droning music and absence of diegetic sound, establishes the cultural terrain the film will worry at - Caleb's first instinct upon hearing the good news is not to remove his headphones and tell the various people physically around him, but to post about his accomplishment on social media and scroll through the dozens of instant reactions. After this, he is swiftly taken to meet the bearded, bear-like Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in his absurdly isolated house-cum-retreatcum-science-lab. Here he discovers his trip has a specific, secret purpose, namely to determine whether Nathan's new robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) can fool a loosely defined, somewhat modified Turing test and thereby stand as the first example of 'true' AI. Ava has a beautiful, lifelike face thanks to her synthetic skin, but most of the rest of her feminine body is see-through (panels of silver-grey neoprene mesh around her chest and waist imply private parts through their coy concealment). She lives in a windowless room, has never been outside and seems initially to accept her situation as would a child. Across numerous sessions, all introduced with onscreen titles, Caleb and Ava verbally feel one another out. Rigorously monitored by Nathan, they nonetheless soon form an alliance of sorts against him, Caleb's allegiance shifting from man to machine as he learns that Ava's creator intends to treat her as a redundant prototype even if she does pass the test and prove to be a conscious, living being.

Garland has described the film as taking place 'ten minutes from now', and he explicitly grounds the sf in contemporary technology. Nathan describes to Caleb how Ava's gel-based and clearly human-sized brain was generated through the harvesting of search-engine metadata - we are told 94 per cent of the world's queries are processed by Blue Book, meaning it offers not only a window onto what people are thinking but how they are thinking. Nathan also hijacked the video and audio feeds of every cell phone camera and microphone in the world to teach his creation facial and vocal expressivity. These revelations suggest that global connectivity has in effect created something of its own artificial intelligence, a Hobbesian Leviathan that mirrors but also stands apart from us, and in which every Google search and Facebook post is the firing of a neuron. Ava's childlike simplicity might seem at odds with this totalisation of wired human activity, especially when compared to the radical rethinking of human agency engendered by the similarly expanded consciousnesses of Transcendence (Pfister UK/China/US 2014) and Lucy (Besson France 2014). …

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