In Alex Garland‘s sci-fi opus, Ex Machina – most commonly seen in the phrase “deus ex machina”, meaning “god from the machine” and frequently used to describe convenient plot contrivances (of which Ex Machina has none) – refers to the process by which a machine transcends its “machininess”. The Turing test has come to describe this as-of-yet unrealized phenomenon more specifically. This experiment tests for a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” Thus the barrier to entry for any truly credible A.I. is sky-high.
Not only must you exhibit superlative intelligence but it must also be nigh indistinguishable from that of a human; a tricky task indeed and one that drives the audience to question what it is specifically that makes an intelligence human. Halfway through Garland’s film, a character drives a scalpel into his arm fervently hunting for circuitry. When the aesthetic design and electronic capacities are this close to impeccable, who’s to say what is man and what is machine.
The conceit of discerning human acumen from that of constructed robotic intelligence is no new concept to movies. Probably the best example is Ridley Scott‘s saxy, sexy Blade Runner in which a bounty hunter who “retires” andys begins to suspect that he might in fact be of android ancestry (decades of storytelling nuance that the upcoming sequel is sure to squarely shat upon.) In many ways, Ex Machina is the natural progression of Blade Runner in that Garland’s film deals similarly with A.I.’s survival instincts. But what Garland really seeks for is congruous to what his characters seeks – to go beyond the construct of “artificial” intelligence in search of real intelligence. If his film is any indication, he’s passed with flying colors.
We find that, in regards to “real” intelligence – a notion that is inherently silly, squishy and flawed – our notion of such comes ingrained with a connection to emotional intelligence – that often-misfiring interpretive side of our human computing capabilities. As it goes, to err is human. At one point in Ex Machina, tech-genius billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) reasons that the ability to joke – spur of the moment asides, not “knock knock” jokes – is an indication of Turing-passing because such requires self-awareness and self-awareness is a traditionally human anomaly. And so begins our story.
Nathan’s riches are only exceeded by his intelligence, although to say that he is an emotionally intelligent human being wouldn’t quite be true. If not for his incessant drunkenness, one might figure him for a robot. Out on a remote island the likes of Isla Nubar, Nathan has created what he presumes to be the first example of true artificial intelligence in Ava (Alicia Vikander). Rather than pass her through rounds of focus groups and product testing, he’s invited Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) under the auspices of a company wide contest to be the first outsider to ever interact with Ava. His goal is simple: to see if she passes the Turing test.
When Caleb arrives on Nathan’s private island (to a musical tune that sounds poignantly reminiscent of John Williams’ wistful dinosaur tracks), he enters a massive and massively impressive subterranean complex. Sheer slates of glass protrude from imposing rocks, segmenting Nathan’s extensive quarters into a set piece that looks itself like a robot brain. Even here, the organic and inorganic meet at sharp corners. After receiving the lowdown – Caleb’ll have a week to assess Ava and decide if she’s the proof in the pudding or not – Garland’s scenes play out in seven segments, each depicting a day with Ava and the corresponding step in testing her “humanness”. The trials begin inauspiciously before quickly turning fearful and paranoid and the transformation of all three characters throughout the trial is truly something to behold.
From the get go, Alicia Vikander gives tactile warmth to Ava’s robotic facade; and were it not for her exposed circuitry, her status as a “human” would be near unquestionable from that first encounter. Vikander offers a performance that breeds delicacy with danger and her ambiguity adds to the unease of the film. As she warms to Caleb, her manipulative powers need to be assessed as either that of a well-oiled machine or of a woman coming into her sexuality. On the receiving end of that affection, Gleeson’s Caleb is the very nubile puppy-dog of the trio and though garishly intelligent – and much more willing to show it off than Nathan – he’s also not very wise to the world. At first palpably ecstatic to take place in this “opportunity of a lifetime,” Caleb’s descent into paranoia and madness is akin to a chess master losing time and again to a computer.
The maker of said computer, Nathan, is kind of like an Einsteinian frat bro – an off-brand synthesis of Channing Tatum and Bill Gates – whose heavy drinking and utter seclusion points sternly to the fact that he’s out of touch and may not be the best judge of said “humanness.” The film fails if these performances are not all spot on and, thankfully, none miss a beat. Gleeson and Isaac are on course to explode, what with their involvement in Star Wars, but no matter the result of that sev-quel, they’ll both have this work to point to in terms of seminal sci-fis. Because believe you me, Ex Machina will not be soon forgotten.
Garland (who also wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd) has stated in interviews that A.I. is “humanity’s last hope” and with Ex Machina being what it is, that’s kind of a scary prospect [Wired]. There’s never any intention to disparage robots or champion humans or vice versa – although Garland did state that he sees the film as “pro-A.I.” – but there is a frightening element to the truth of humanity’s destructive power. Says Garland, “It’s humans who fuck everything up; machines have a pretty good track record in comparison to us.” An unsettling truism but a truism no less.
To tie everything together, the technical aspects on display here teeter on a level of subtle perfection largely missing from the CG firestorms of post-millennium blockbusters. Dark cinematography from Rob Hardy provides claustrophobia to Mark Digby‘s jungle-industrial set design; when the red alert lights blare overhead, it feels like each and every nefarious thing is possible. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow describe their dread-filled score as “a mix of organic and electronic sounds”. Their all-encompassing mechanical melancholia is matched by ethereal ambience and frosty synth lines that occasional open up to child-like 8-note xylophone runs that themselves build into volcanic cacophonies. Their aggressively syncopated work burrows into you, gently inviting and yet totally, tonally haunting, and will remind one of a cross section of 28 Days Later, Resident Evil (the video games) and Jurassic Park.
Brilliant tech work aligns with Garland’s beautifully sour/smartly subversive writing/directing and Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander’s low-broiling performances to create what can only be described as a neo sci-fi noir near-masterpiece. Living in a time when tech and humanity cycle increasingly closer to one another in the Rolodex of life, Ex Machina – from each and every angle – pummels you with the idea of what is to come. The prospects are terrifying.