EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.
Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.
Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human’; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.
Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.
Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).
The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?
For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.
Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”
So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion
Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).