Artificial Intelligence films tend to generate an atmosphere of dread. The concept of creating mechanical tools that can think and emote on their own and can formulate solutions to problems is, on the one hand, a highly applaudable concept. On the other hand, we would have very well created a Darwinian competitor in humanity’s life-cycle. In the battle between man versus machine, when the machine can not only think like us, but out-think us, our ability to survive becomes circumspect.
Ex Machina, the directorial debut by Alex Garland, writer of grand science fiction stories such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the adaptation of Never Let Me Go, tackles this theme with the sense of dread that it deserves but approaches it with a somber maturity that a lesser writer-director may not have. Instead of violent and gory man vs machine battles, Garland presents us with the psychosexual underpinnings of humanity’s base desires.
Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is selected to work with the secretive Nathan (Oscar Isaac) on a highly confidential project: a Turing test on his new artificial intelligence platform, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid machine meant to converse, emote and relate to humans as convincingly as possible. As the tests go on, Caleb discovers disturbing motivations not only behind the AI Ava, but also it’s creator Nathan.
Garland echoes Kubrick in the sterile, experiment-like tenacity that he approaches the film’s story. For many moments he approaches the scene with an openness and objectivity as if watching the experiment from Nathan eyes. Wide frames in isolation, though, tend to unsettle us, and it’s a clever approach as the isolation begins to have an effect on Caleb, our proxy. When he wonders why there are no windows, Nathan tells Caleb its because, after all, his home is a research facility more than anything else. So, we watch in isolation, in silence. It’s this cold approach, this mechanical underpinning that facilitates the film’s underlying irony about machines replicating human instincts while humans administer psychological and psychanalytic testing with mechanical exactness to poke holes in their own artificial intelligence.
But of course, this is all underpinned by the notion that Nathan has created a large amount of female humanoids, announcing with an appropriate lack of sobriety to Caleb one night, “You can fuck it.”
Isolation has it’s costs, and to Caleb it reveals his misogynist desires as, at least a part of, his motivations for creating artificial intelligence in the first place.
Not often do films about artificial intelligence tread on the base desires we have. As Father and God to these machinations, Nathan expresses his own need for dominance (it is his powerful search engine database that provides the “wet-ware” brain of the AI with it’s data, after all), and there are a few great scenes where Caleb realizes the true horror behind Nathan’s purpose and use for artificial intelligence and how they don’t match up.
Ex Machina is a great film, but definitely not for everybody. It’s slow, mechanical and has a sterile, scientific approach to itself, but that’s one of its overall strengths as a mature examination of the very real horrors of our relationship with artificial intelligence in a plausible, real world future