by Matt J. Popham
With a few notable exceptions, cinema has, throughout its history, been almost apocalyptically alarmist about the idea of artificial intelligence. Metropolis, 2001, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix (to name just a few popular examples) all feature thinking machines turning violently on mankind. And as scientists repeatedly assert that the creation of an actual artificial intelligence is right around the corner, many notable authorities, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, have urgently warned us of the inherent dangers. Of course, psychologists and neuroscientists have yet to pin down many of the fundamentals of human intelligence – the nature of consciousness, free will, identity and self-awareness – so the question arises, even if an artificial intelligence were to come into existence, how could we be sure…?
Alex Garland’s quiet and disquieting Ex Machina examines many of the issues surrounding the creation of an artificial intelligence, drawing on a vast array of thematically related sources, from Frankenstein to Wittgenstein, from the Book of Genesis to machine ethicists, from Gordon E. Moore to James H. Moor, even paying passing homage to more than a few of the films listed above. But it’s got a lot more meat on its bones and matter in mind than any artlessly assembled pastiche. Set “ten minutes into the future,” according to Garland, the story concerns Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder for a Google-type search engine called Bluebook, who is invited to spend a week at a top secret, high-tech retreat with the company CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once there, Caleb is asked by Bateman to perform the Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot he has designed, to help him determine if she is, in fact, an AI. All at once, awed and apprehensive, Caleb agrees, only to find himself captivated by Ava – not just her existence, but her essence – a quandary that gives rise to the film’s central dramatic conflicts.
Garland is probably best known as the screen scribe behind Danny Boyle’s breathtaking science fiction thrillers, 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, as well as 2012’s instant cult classic comic adaptation, Dredd; but what’s interesting about Ex Machina is that, despite its speculative sci-fi premise, it feels less like Blade Runner than Betrayal. Considered and contained, it is Garland’s cagey and carefully coordinated character relationships that drive the film. Through a series of superficially informal encounters, Caleb, Nate, and Ava must navigate and negotiate each other’s ulterior motives and covert intentions, none of them being quite what they seem. Take away the handful of impressive (but gracefully understated) VFX shots, and you could almost stage it as a play. Rising expertly to the occasion, Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander deliver controlled, subtly layered performances, deliberately keeping us off-balance and at arm’s length, animus and arithmetic flickering behind their disarmingly casual demeanors.
Perhaps as a result of having spent the better part of his career writing for one of cinema’s most dynamic stylists, Garland wisely reins in the visual flourishes, opting instead to study his characters and their interactions impassively. Using silence and stillness, washing the screen in vivid shades of red, green, and blue, and cutting around the sleek and sterile hallways of Bateman’s hermitage rather than tracking through them, Garland’s visual approach evokes nothing so much as a networked security feed. It’s a strategy that effectively creates an uneasy suspense, making us feel simultaneously omniscient and limited in our perspective, but also allows his unapologetically cerebral writing and superlative cast to take center stage.
Ultimately, Ex Machina, unlike many of its predecessors, is not a parable about the perilous potential of an artificial intelligence run amok. Just as the muted, intellectual dialogues between Ex Machina’s three leads mask more primal impulses, the repeated references to Oppenheimer and invocations of the singularity are red herrings – a narrative sleight-of-hand, distracting us from Garland’s meticulous orchestration of the far more interesting ideas ignited by his characters’ interplay. In a time when the latest neuroscientific studies throw the existence of our own free will increasingly into doubt, as our consciousness and self-awareness seem more and more like post-facto organizational mechanisms than true apprehensions of external stimuli and internal response, Ex Machina uses its premise and performances to unsettlingly blur the lines between our concepts of volition and programming, nature and code, what is “artificial” and what is “genuine.” To be underwhelmed by the film’s admittedly predictable Twilight Zone “twist” ending is to miss the point: If the existence of an artificial intelligence is, in fact, a threat to us, it is no moreso than we are to each other or ourselves..