3 Stars – Thought-provoking
Presenting perhaps the most thought-provoking film to date on Artificial Intelligence, Alex Garland has created a masterpiece as both the writer and director of Ex Machina. Choosing this story as his debut as a director, the pacing and simplicity of the story allows us to look deeply into the eyes of the computing machines that are increasingly capturing the days of our lives.
Asking the question of whether these artificially created intelligences might also capture our hearts is the theme of several recent films, including Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix’s heart is captured. But Garland takes this idea to the next level when he designs a robot with not only an alluring though disembodied voice, but also one that includes a body replicating every search engine desire logged in his main character’s computing history. When he faces the ultimate representation of the woman of his dreams, it matters little whether she is a robot. From the face to the body to the facial expressions, it is more than he can do to keep his heart from falling.
The setting is exquisite. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) works for the premier search engine company in the world. Its founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) manipulates a contest within his company such that Caleb believes he is going to be a guest in Nathan’s home in a remote mountain estate for a week. Flown in by helicopter far from any civilization or electronic network, Caleb is invited to a unique experiment – he is here to be the evaluator of whether Nathan has achieved true self-awareness within an artificial intelligence.
His subject is Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is the most advanced computer yet created and has been imbedded within a beautiful female form. As a robot, she has been designed with the physical ability to have sex and is arguably capable of love. This addition to the evaluation predictably confuses Caleb, and isolation has obviously undermined Nathan’s mental stability.
Under Nathan’s deft guidance and manipulation, Caleb and Ava are encouraged to explore their feelings for each other. This manipulation has been inadvertently, or perhaps been unavoidably, included in Ava’s programing. It is this passing of Nathan’s self-centered narcissism, as seen by his lack of empathy and compassion, to the programing of his artificially created being that brings about the unexpected in all of their lives.
Though we won’t spoil how the tale is told, the questions of personhood are engagingly presented. From the creator to the evaluator to the creature, the web that surrounds them is analogous to the one in which we all live. Heartless logic is not intelligent, and yet if that is the standard for evaluation, then many humans would fail the test. Similarly, having a heart that doesn’t think and becomes vulnerable to manipulation also permeates humanity. If Caleb is being asked to decide whether Ava is worthy of continuing to exist rather than being only one prototype that will be absorbed into the next experiment, then it raises the questions of murder when such a machine is turned off.
The conclusion of the film is both ingenious and haunting. The suspicion that there may be some among us who are not what they appear to be is already present within the human heart and mind. It is this fear that drives much of our interactions at a personal, political and spiritual level. With this film it is suggested it could also be at the mechanical-electronic level. Perhaps only time will tell whether actual science will reach what our science fiction imagines today, but if the past is any predictor of the future, it will. As Nathan explains, when we pass that threshold, then it may be that the conscious machines will look at us as apes in their evolutionary development. If that is true, then the spiritual component of humanity will matter all the more.
- If you had been in Caleb’s place when you were asked by Nathan to sign a document of nondisclosure without knowing what you were going to be asked to do, would you sign? Why do you answer as you do?
- Nathan wrote the code for a search engine when he was thirteen. Becoming rich beyond any description, he lives isolated far from others while trying to create a perfect mate. Do you think such behavior is the result of his genius, as it was for such men as Howard Hughes, or do you think it is the result of avoiding the people who invaded his life due to his wealth?
- When the end places Caleb in the very place where he was going to consign Nathan, did you feel compassion for him? Why do you answer as you do?