Sunday, 22 February 2015

Ex Machina (2014, US)

A reclusive tech billionaire builds an artificial intelligence android at his isolated hideout and then invites one of his programmers to apply the Turing test. Hilarity does not ensue.


Genre: Drama/Thriller | Director: Alex Garland | Writer: Alex Garland | Actors: Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander | Cinematographer: Rob Hardy | Studio: DNA Films, Film4, Scott Rudin Prod. | Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Scott Rudin

One sentence description: I, Robot meets AI meets Blade Runner
One (long) sentence review: An intelligent, artistic thriller about humanity and technology. 
Watch it if…You like your films pretty and philosophical.
Don’t watch it if…You need films to make you feel warm inside.
Best thing about the film…Oscar Isaac dancing to "Get Down Tonight" with his mute Japanese maid.

The Story
Caleb, a software developer, wins a competition to spend a day with his tech company’s CEO, a famous and reclusive billionaire (Nathan). Nathan shows Caleb the project he has secretly been working on – creating an AI, a female android called “Ava”. Nathan wants Caleb to run the Turing test on Ava, which Caleb accepts. Over the next 90mins., we watch Caleb trying to connect with Ava and understand how she thinks and what she thinks. But all is not as it seems – Caleb has not been chosen for the reason he thinks he has been, while Ava and Nathan have ulterior motives. But how will it all end?

The Review

There is a scene early on in this film where the tech genius misquotes an earlier phrase by Caleb and calls himself a god. As if to drive the point home, he then goes into a control room to watch his android creation pacing up and down her little glass cage. The rest of the film follows in the same vein, blurring the lines between gods, humans and machines. In doing so, Ex Machina becomes an excellent fable about humanity and its ruinous quest to create artificial intelligence, acting as a junior companion piece to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Although it’s not a unique addition to the genre, writer and director Alex Garland brings something new to the party by updating old themes in the age of smartphones and ubiquitous surveillance.

Alex Garland has proven himself to be a talented writer in the past, with films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd under his belt. This time, we find him in the Director’s chair too, and all in all, it’s not too shabby an effort in this reviewer’s opinion. But while we’re at it, who would actually dislike this film? Nobody, I’d bet - instead, those not bowled over by this film would simply ask “so what?”. Hasn’t this all been done before? Well, yes, but the whole point is to turn the genre on its head, add new perspectives to it and update it for the 21st century.

The last time we saw an intelligent film on AI is arguably not even in the 21st century – the last few years have given us Transcendence, I, Robot, Wall-E and Eagle Eye, which are of, shall we say, varying quality. But these films do not, in any case, have a particular interest in understanding an intelligent machine. Of course, the masters in this genre are Blade Runner, 2001 and Tron, all of which were made more than 30 years ago.

Garland isn’t interested in moulding a straightforward thriller, which some filmmakers would have done: imagine in the finale a darkened hallway with the lights mysteriously cut, our plucky protagonists being stalked by an unseen but lithe and powerful AI that could crush their necks with a twist of her wrist. A sort of "Predator meets 2001". Garland introduces some choice twists but they’re quite incidental to the film. The end, when it comes, is so oneiric and lightly artistic that you almost wonder whether it really happened.

Looking at Garland's filmography, it’s clear that his writing is drenched in the ink of science fiction. But there’s one thing that unites all his films: they take place in some dystopian future or other-world, but this time he’s drawn inspiration from the world we currently live in (what do you mean you don’t know a reclusive billionaire making robots in his basement?). This is particularly unsettling because it prevents us from distancing ourselves from this creation. 

In the age of hyper-media-socialisation, here is this incredibly intelligent being learning to process what she sees and touches for the first time. Ava is a sentient being of very little artifice, but with incredible physical and computing power. It makes you think what would happen if she turned against her 'master'. We spend much of the film watching Ava pacing inside a glass cage, rather like watching a young panda in a zoo. She is unthreatening, friendly and eager. But she’s hiding a secret too.

Ex Machina is a brilliantly photographed film, with shiny glass and metal covering almost every surface in Nathan’s complex – much of the film takes place in a “cage”, with Caleb and Ava talking to each other through a glass wall. Ava’s body is quite well generated, although it’s still an odd choice to use translucent robotics rather than a skin covering. Despite having a body that is more than half transparent, Ava’s intentions appear unclear to our plucky hero Caleb (played by a suitably awkward Domhnall Gleason).

While being a visually pleasing film, it is also a ruminative one: The film is also as much about isolation as it is about humanity - Nathan isolates himself from all humans, just so he can build himself a human to interact with. Extended interaction with this AI causes Caleb to question his own humanity, which is a nice turn on the genre. The conversations between Caleb and Ava have an increasingly philosophical tone. Caleb probes Ava’s personality through questions, patiently looking for seams, where two clumsy lines of code may have been stitched together. But instead what he finds is a thoughtful girl (‘woman’ just doesn’t seem right) who yearns to be a woman, to date a man, to find companionship.

It is here that we get a glimpse into Caleb’s life – he too feels like a lonely robot, doing the same thing every day, stuck behind a glass wall (desk), feeling locked out of life. Like Ava, he feels alone too. And this is where his vulnerability causes him to act in a way that precipitate the end of this odd love triangle.

Which brings us to one of the more opaque characters in the film, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire eccentric. Isaac puts in a quietly tidy performance, oozing a quietly menacing intellectualism. Whereas Caleb initially wants to talk about code and the mechanics of android creation, Nathan just wants Caleb to interact with Ava as a human. This is unfortunately the unravelling of Nathan’s grand plan, as Caleb’s humanity and ingenuity makes him vulnerable. Nathan isn’t just testing Ava’s lifelike-ness, but whether she is capable of strategy, conspiracy and cunning.

The film’s main vulnerability is that it plays its cards a little too close to its chest – Ava and Caleb’s discourse never quite hits the mark. The reason Blade Runner works so well is because it envisions an entire world and its characters interact with the philosophical questions in the rough and tumble of a crime investigation. Ex Machina reduces the whole genre to a sterilised, reductionist discussion in a seemingly safe place, so the script can focus on the reasons for why humans feel alone, what it means to be human and how we all use each other. There’s very little sense of urgency, very little sense of place and therefore very little context.

Beautiful and intelligent though it is, it’s hard to feel empathy for any of the characters involved. The film’s cold photography is also a little distancing, from the décor to the frosty behaviour of Nathan, his Japanese help and indeed the quiet, deliberate movements from Ava. For these reasons, although I left the cinema admiring this film greatly, it is not a film I will recall with great warmth and love. And that’s exactly how the filmmakers like it.


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