Posts Tagged ‘Ex Machina’

When you’ve written one inarguably brilliant novel (I refer to The Beach) and had a hand in making one of the most influential movies of the last 15 years (that would be 28 Days Later), I think you’ve earned the right to have anything else you produce treated with at least a modicum of interest and anticipation. So it was that I and a few friends found ourselves trotting off to see Ex Machina, a new SF movie written and directed by Alex Garland (also responsible for… well, see the start of the paragraph).

ex machina

Arriving at the cinema I found myself treated to a surprise cameo, not in the film itself but in the theatre, for who should be sitting across the aisle to us but my very slight acquaintance and one-time commenter on this blog, Mr Peter Hitchens (the writer, Mail on Sunday columnist, Right Wing thinker, and compiler of amusing indices). I know some people are surprised by my regard and fondness for Mr H, given our politics are – to put it mildly – somewhat divergent, but I have great respect for his intellect and integrity. Plus, anyone whom David Cameron thinks is ‘a maniac’ must be doing something right.

Trying not to let Mr H’s presence distract me too much, I settled down to watch the film. It concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young employee of a major corporation who wins the staff lottery, for which the prize is to visit the head of the company at his remote, futuristic compound. Said boss is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), and – having compelled Caleb to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement – he reveals what he’s been working on.

Not only has Nathan seemingly solved the numerous problems of designing convincingly humanoid robots, he has also cracked the knotty issue of strong AI – probably. The thing is, he can’t be sure whether his creation is genuinely sentient or not, and to this end wants Caleb to interact with the construct and see if he is convinced of her sentience. For, yes, it is a she: the android (or should that be gynoid? Hmmm) is named Ava and played by Alicia Vikander (Ava looks rather like Robocop’s half-finished little sister).

Suffice to say that Caleb finds himself much taken with Ava, and increasingly sympathetic to her plight as – apparently – nothing but a very complex toy in the hands of the increasingly sinister and objectionable Nathan. But can he really trust either of them? And is everything going on quite what it seems to be?

One of the things propelling me to see Ex Machina was the glowing reviews it received from other acquaintances, and the first thing I have to say is that this is absolutely not a bad film. Though it clearly shows the influences of a number of other prominent SF films (others have suggested it is similar to both Westworld and I, Robot), it wears these quite lightly, and while it some degree resembles the ‘cerebral’ type of SF movie most frequently made between 1968 and 1977, the narrative is never cumbersome or especially difficult to follow. (Perhaps just as well, given I was uncomfortably aware of buzzes and flashes coming from the smartphone of one of Britain’s most prominent Right Wing commentators at several points during the film.)

As I’m sure many people are sick of being reminded, artificial intelligence is one of the few serious subjects on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, having written a dissertation on it, and as a serious examination of the topic I think Ex Machina is only a qualified success at best. Garland has clearly done his research on the topic, with name-checks for thought-experiments like the black-and-white room and talk of the importance of invested semantics and so on, so it certainly sounds competent. On the other hand, many references are made to the Turing test, with Caleb’s encounters with Ava described as being an extended version of one – but I’m afraid this seemed to me to be so methodologically unsound I was instantly sceptical (his knowing she is a machine all along essentially invalidates the test per se, to say nothing of the Turing test being somewhat discredited as genuine assessment of AI anyway). As it turns out, the fact that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Turing test turns out to be central to the plot, with Nathan fully aware of its shortcomings – but it doesn’t explain why Caleb isn’t more dubious of what he’s participating in. Oh well: to err is human (which does seem to be one of the film’s themes).

In any case, the film is clearly intended to function as a fable rather than a naturalistic drama, although quite what it’s about is not entirely clear. There is a time-honoured tradition of any story about AI or robotics concluding with what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as the clank-clank-aaargh stage, but it would obviously be spoiling the story for me to reveal if Ex Machina also goes in this direction. For most of its duration it seems to be addressing many of the issues involved in the development of strong AI only in passing – if we did build a sentient machine, what moral right would we have to effectively hold it in slavery? – and it seemed to me that the film was rather more concerned not with human-machine relations but how people treat each other, and specifically the way in which men objectify women. It’s not by chance that Nathan’s AI has female form. It’s an interesting approach to the issue, but again what the film is trying to say beyond the obvious is unclear (and if Alex Garland really is serious about criticising male objectification of women, making a film in which every major female character has a full-frontal nude scene is a slightly odd way of doing so).

Nevertheless, Garland’s direction is assured and the film looks very impressive throughout: the visuals have a pristine coolness that matches the measured tone of proceeding. Every shot feels like it has been very carefully worked out and made as immaculate as possible. The problem with this, however, is that the visuals sometimes dominate and render the story itself somewhat inscrutable. This is problematic when what the film is trying to say is open to several interpretations, most of which are mutually exclusive. Is it suggesting that machine intelligence will essentially prove to be cold and unknowable, something inherently alien and perhaps hostile? Or is it trying to indicate quite the opposite, that our machine creations will only be flawed and dangerous inasmuch as they resemble us so closely? It’s not that the film is deliberately ambiguous on this, but more that it doesn’t really suggest it has any real position at all.

At the risk of stealing the Mail on Sunday’s thunder (and there are some words I never thought I’d type), I can reveal that Mr Hitchens found the film to be generally enjoyable, although he thought it descended into absurdity in the last five minutes. Well, I had less of a problem with that than he did, and I was pleasantly surprised, during our brief chat, to discover his familiarity with 70s SF touchstones – I had to remind myself he really doesn’t know me and restrain my indignation at the suggestion I might not have seen Westworld myself (Mr H, should you be reading, the link to the review is up the page). (Despite his good-natured grumbling about being asked for instant film criticism, I thought he had a decent crack at it.)

On the whole I thought this was a superior SF movie and a very impressive debut from Garland. This may not be the only low-budget, highbrow genre movie we see this year starring Isaacs and Gleeson (NB: irony is present), but it may well prove the most interesting. Still, it’s not perfect – it bears a certain resemblance to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, just one slightly less impressive than most. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it really isn’t meant to: this is a good film, just not quite a great one.

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