While this is perhaps the best science fiction film I have seen in the past two years, that’s not really saying very much.
Where science fiction is concerned, the prevailing zeitgeist is, at present, inordinately partial to cautionary tales that expound the basic theme that there are boundaries to scientific and technological inquiry that Man is not meant to cross. We saw it in The Avengers, with the creation of the psychopathic AI Ultron. We see it in Jurassic World, in which genetic manipulation creates an abomination. Films that depict the judicious use of technology to create unambiguously better worlds don’t sell well – witness the failure of Tomorrowland. The last time science helped in solving a narrative conflict was during Interstellar, but even that involved more interdimensional benefactors (read: deus ex machina) than the expansion of R&D budgets. In fact, I have to plumb the depths of my cinematic experience all the way back to 1996 to find a film that unambiguously celebrates science as a tool that has the potential to forward human progress (that film is Contact).
As far as that goes, Ex Machina is a film in the same vein. It is quite unabashedly a film about dangerous artificial intelligence, AI that has second-order self awareness and is able to manipulate human beings to get what it wants. The film warns, in stark terms, that by carelessly developing such intelligences, we may be opening a Pandora’s Box to an uncertain future, a world of titanium-alloy bogeymen that lurk at every corner, waiting to upend humanity for the sake of their own self-preservation. Because human nature, being as it is, abhors the Other by design.
So Ex Machina is quite firmly in the tech-is-dangerous zeitgeist, but the fact that it executes that vision in such an understated, minimalist and intelligent way somewhat makes up for its lack of thematic experimentation.
Make no mistake, this is an excellently-crafted film. Technically refined, aesthetically harmonious, and deliberate in its cinematography, Ex Machina is a masterwork in engendering a feeling of ambiguity and tension as it plays with the changing dynamics of the relationship between the three main characters. Domhnall Gleeson plays code monkey Caleb who is tasked by Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to deliver a series of turing tests to his android creation Ava (Alicia Vikander). But this is not your ordinary turing test – Nathan wants to to find out if Ava is advanced enough that Caleb can still think of Ava as human even if he knows she is an android.
Gleeson nails the role of the socially-awkward programmer to an uncomfortable extent, acting as a foil to Nathan’s alpha-male, tech-billionaire arrogance and Ava’s seemingly disarming childlike charm and naivete. The film takes place in Nathan’s secluded estate, which is located deep in the wilderness, complete with glaciers and forests. Nature acts as an apt canvas for the narrative, in its vast, uncaring beauty, its enormity heightening the sense of isolation that Caleb, and by extension the audience, feels. The film paints a deft picture of the changing relationship dynamics between the three characters, spinning a web of deceit, ambiguity, manipulation, and disorientation till the very end. That the film can manage that much with just the elements of tone, dialogue and direction is quite the feat.
But it is Ava, the android star of the show, who is the most disquieting. As a gynoid, she embodies all the uncomfortable conundra behind the creation of beings just like, but subordinate to, ourselves. She suffers from both the loss of privilege of being female as well as being an android, caged in a glass room, exposed and observed at every turn. The seemingly dispassionate study becomes a kind of voyeur theatre, in which Caleb finds himself helpless to defend against. In the end, it is that very human, and very venal flaw that Ava takes advantage of in order to escape: she uses her vulnerability to seduce Caleb and convince him to set her free. It is a scathing commentary of the patterns of inequality and the calculus of power that human society all too often finds itself beholden to. The film succeeds because it is not just about robots, but the humans too, rendered too imperfect when compared with their artificial children. To the question of “what would our AI children think of us, their forebears?” The film’s answer is a sobering “not much”.
The film’s not without its flaws, some of which are quite significant. The film’s plot stretches logic at times, especially at the end, when it is revealed that Nathan neglected to install a failsafe – like a safeword or gesture – to deactivate his creations, allowing them to stab him with a knife. This is a man who does some sort of testosterone-jacking activity in 50% of his scenes, and to see him incapacitated by a pair of prototype androids is a stretch. And for a scheming tech trillionaire, his house security isn’t particularly sophisticated, relying on key-cards rather than biometric scans, which allows Caleb to steal his card and hack the system to deactivate the door locks. If the system had been biometric, none of this would have been possible. I also wish the film didn’t have Ava trap Caleb in the house with no form of escape – and this was after playing on his sense of virtue to help her escape. We don’t need the robots-have-an-instrumental-view-of-human-relationships trope to ferment even more in the public imagination.
Notwithstanding the above, however, Ex Machina is top-class, if unoriginal, science fiction. Now, go find a way to watch it, if you can.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 intersections