Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ex Machina Movie Review

It’s worth admiring a movie that attempts to tell a story of big ideas and deal with philosophical challenges, even if the execution isn’t what one might consider perfect. If there’s at least a modicum of kill and effort put into the craft of the storytelling and filmmaking, any missteps are easy to gloss over. Alex Garand’s Ex Machina, a science-fiction thriller takes the issue of artificial intelligence and cuts to the core of meaning behind consciousness and, by extension, humanity.

This is Garland’s first film as director, though he’s written a few screenplays, most notably 28 Days Later and Sunshine. He also wrote the novel The Beach and collaborated on the film adaptation. He specializes in microcosmic communities, the psychological warfare of small groups, and mental deterioration within those communities. Ex Machina has about as small a community as you can get. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a golden ticket to spend a week at the bunker-like private compound located on an estate the size of a country of his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The only other residents during the seven days are a Japanese house servant, Kyoko, who doesn’t speak or understand any English, and the AI humanoid Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb has been brought there to administer a kind of Turing test of Ava’s humanity.

Garland has a real visual acuity for expressing a great deal of story information in small spaces, particularly with character design. Caleb is thin, almost frail. He is meek and sort of geeky, a perfect foil for manipulation. But who’s doing the manipulating? He’s been brought to a prison-like home by a reclusive genius who drinks himself to the point of blackout most nights. The machine he talks to every day tells him not to trust his boss. For all intents and purposes, the building is a prison. Nathan calls it a “research facility” with security measures to keep out would-be thieves. Truthfully, Caleb is a prisoner almost as much as Ava, who is not even permitted to leave her room and must converse with Caleb through a glass partition, not at all unlike prison visitation.

Isaac bulked up for the role, bringing the opposite of the expected appearance for a teenage prodigy software developer who made billions off the world’s foremost search engine, known as Bluebook. When we first meet him he’s lifting weights (a common prisoner activity!) Everything about his appearance suggests physical intimidation. And the AI design has Vikander’s smooth and innocent face, but a transparent torso that reveals some of the inner mechanics even while so much about her inner mind remains mysterious.

Nathan and Caleb talk in broad terms about the Godlike qualities of creating life – or consciousness, as it were – and what consciousness and thought really are. None of their talks are too pedantic, thankfully. They always hint at a broader discussion that would be appropriate in undergraduate philosophy courses, but not in a popular work of fiction. Don’t get me wrong, the depth is there, it’s just left unspoken. As the story veers in different directions including psychological thriller, slasher film, philosophical science fiction, it keeps you on your toes and guessing throughout. The story sets up several moments where it could take you in one direction or another. The beauty is that I would love to have seen any of those potential explorations. Garland had to choose one direction, but the possibility of other deeper storylines reveals a mind that has put a great deal of thought into the screenplay.

The story is supported by some exceptional acting. Gleeson does a more than serviceable job as the young man caught in the middle between an AI falling in love with him and a possibly overwrought megalomaniacal entrepreneur. But Vikander and Isaac are the standouts. She controls her eyes and face so perfectly, predominantly using only those features to convey meaning. She has the look of a little girl, still struggling to understand a world she’s only experienced through the Internet. But Oscar Isaac, oh my! This completes a triumvirate of superb acting beginning with Inside Llewyn Davis, and continuing through A Most Violent Year. Now this to round out some of the most varied character creation of the last decade. He brings each time new mannerisms, new physicality, and new speech patterns. In short, he builds an entirely new human being for each role. It’s a total transformation, remarkable to witness.

I could have done without some of the turns Garland opted for in the final scenes. He has a habit of invoking violence as a means of illustrating the awfulness that humanity often devolves into. The paradise of The Beach falls to pieces; the astronauts in Sunshine have motivations that come into conflict with one another that end up only resolved through violent means. Does Nathan deserve the comeuppance he receives? Is he a modern Prometheus deserving of punishment (the knife he takes to the liver is pretty telling)? What about Caleb? Is he complicit in the imprisonment of Ava even as he schemes to release her? And what of Ava herself? Is her humanity defined exclusively by her ability to manipulate, empathize, con, trick, and imagine? Some of Garland’s story goals might have been arrived at through different means that wouldn’t have altered the tone of the movie so drastically.

The way the movie ends leaves no mystery around what everyone’s motivations were throughout the film, but it opens the door to discussion over whether or not Nathan actually achieved true AI in the sense of a singularity or a machine that is indistinguishable from a human being. We never find out if Ava is capable of empathy or merely emulating empathetic behaviors to achieve her goals. And is the distinction even meaningful? We can pose questions of infinite regress all the way back to amoebas and bacteria that evolve through natural selection. Ava might very well be simply the next step in human evolution, or a great leap forward perhaps. Nathan notes midway through the movie that in the future the AI will look back on human beings the way we look at dinosaur fossils. We are animals using crude tools and forms of communication, pre-coded and destined for extinction. These are interesting and scary ideas.

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