By Brandon Engel: Ex Machina, the latest in a long line of AI-focused films, provides a sleek and contemporary scrutiny of the complex relationship between humans and their robo-progeny. A thriller as much as it is a serious science fiction film, Ex Machina encourages viewers to rethink their own conceptions of personal identity and intention – begging the question of what it really means to be a “human.”
The premise itself is simple: Caleb is a lowly programmer at a Google-esque search engine company, who, after winning a company-wide contest, is invited to spend a week with the enigmatic and reclusive company owner Nathan. Nathan has asked Caleb to visit on the basis that he will act as the litmus test for his latest creation – a sentient female A.I. named “Ava.” Using the information he’s collected from billions of unique individuals, Nathan has developed her as an uncannily lifelike amalgamation of anthropomorphic characteristics to amplify his own efforts to further understand the human psyche.
Within the walls of Nathan’s custom-built research facility, Caleb endeavors to test the limits of Ava’s humanity. Sci-fi fans will find few twists in this movie, but it makes up for any moments of predictability with solid pacing and more than enough sociological observations on our own capacity for evil. In the end, the film is less about how bad robots can be and more about how terrible we are, a race of highly sentient mammals with a taste for depravity deeply hardwired in. That Nathan has a cache of robot sex slaves comes as no surprise, nor does the fact that Ava is modelled after a very heteronormative, even perversely Caucasian standard of beauty. Set against a backdrop of sparse pines and mountain peaks, Ex Machina gives viewers nowhere to hide from their own perturbing subconscious.
Featuring an ominous, Carpenter-esque score and gorgeous special effects, the story is as tight as Ava’s lithe chainmaille torso. Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and inarguably one of the best films of the year resulting from the partnership between art house production company A24 films and DirecTV (joining A Most Violent Year and Slow West). Garland’s masterful depiction of his characters in isolation (the film was primarily shot in Norway) occasionally leaves the viewer feeling as though they’re at the hands of Kubrick in The Shining. When the ending does arrive, it’s a horrible, albeit entirely logical, extension of each character’s psychology.
The ambiguous nature of a robot’s intentions – are they thinking “freely” or simply parroting the behavior of those around them? – is well-trammeled ground in science fiction. Reaching back to the release of Dr. Frankenstein’s original monster, the minds of robots have long served as a point of fear and fascination. Examined in William Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, as well as today’s contemporary cinema (Her being last year’s popular example), we continue to wonder whether androids will ever be able to live in harmony beside us. Many writers, such as Asimov (whom Ex machina references), William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick, have written stories depicting worlds where men and robots coexist side-by-side. Indeed, many of them also proposed rules to govern the synthetic beings and prevent them from taking hostile actions against humans. If the robotic truly seeks to replicate the “human”, it will have to wrestle with the kernel of brutality inherent to its design.
And while scientists continue to assure us that true thinking, feeling, free-will A.I. will be of no danger to us, convincing simulations of human A.I. are already in our laps now. Google’s A.I. programs are capable of learning from “experience”, filtering data into meaningful patterns and mimicking certain principles of the brain. In recent years A.I. has become an increased area of focus among research teams in both Silicon Valley and China. And that’s just when we keep matters in the sphere of the silicon chips; when bioengineering catches up to computer engineering – as it inevitably will during the 21st century – we might have a whole new set of concerns.
The A.I. revolution – when it does come – may be treated as a new branch of human evolution.
As technology progresses, the line between humans beings and robots will continue to blur, possibly receding completely down the road. Indeed, this improved ability to imbue machines with “human” perception drives us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness.
Yet in reality as in Ex Machina, the minds of those around us – robotic or otherwise – will likely continue to confound.