Ex Machina


A scene from “Ex Machina.”

What will true artificial intelligence look like? Movies always deal with infallible (when functioning properly) machines that are faster, smarter, and stronger than human beings that never get a math problem incorrect. But a true artificial intelligence has to be able to convince a human that it too is human. It has to blend in with humanity. Getting every math problem correct doesn’t allow it to blend in – humans get things wrong. A true artificial intelligence would have to be flawed – at least, if we want it to pretend to be human.

The line between man and machine is blurred in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Just look at the house that Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of a successful Internet search engine company, has designed for himself – grey concrete, perfectly Windexed windows and mirrors, minimalist furnishings, and sliding doors lifted straight from Star Trek. It evokes the cold and clean efficiency of a machine, but it’s lived in and used by a man. Nathan is a tortured genius. Tortured because that’s the only reason to explain why he drinks so much. He’s obsessed with passing the ultimate Turing test – convincing a human being that a machine is human, without hiding the machine.

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) a young programmer at Nathan’s company, wins a contest to spend time with his CEO at his isolated home in the wilderness. Caleb will be the human portion of the Turing test, and the machine is Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is a synthetic robot with a human face and exposed wiring everywhere else. She’s clearly not human, but her programming is sophisticated. As Caleb continues his Turing test “sessions” – with Ava trapped in a small room behind a glass wall – he becomes increasingly convinced that Nathan is hiding something as his feelings for Ava grow deeper.

This is a twisted and ingenious film. It’s clever, manipulative, and plays with our expectations and empathy. There’s a late revelation near the end of the film that instigates the climax and brilliantly juxtaposes Caleb’s reaction to it versus Ava’s reaction. Carefully consider what Caleb does, why he does it, and why we think it is the right thing, and then remember the purpose of Nathan’s Turing test. It’s not really Nathan’s Turing test the film is about, but Garland’s Turing test. And we fall for it. Just watch Ava’s reaction as she later discovers the same revelation that Caleb did and her nonchalant reaction. It’s an inevitable conclusion to the trick Caleb has played on himself (and by extension, ourselves) when all the cards were laid out on the table in front of him.

The one misstep of the film is that it doesn’t follow Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – which is a glaring flaw and discards the blurred humanity that Ex Machina has spent a feature-length running time building up by starkly pointing out that Ava is not one of us. This choice undermines the devilishly clever trick of the scenes that came before it and disappointingly becomes another warning parable about artificial intelligence when it earlier had been about something much more.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: Sunshine, written by Alex Garland, is a favourite science-fiction film of mine, despite it being deeply flawed. The majority of the film is a feature-length version of the short story The Cold Equations, and presents the disregard for humanity and compassion a small group of astronauts must have to ironically save humanity from extinction. The film’s lofty ambitions melt the closer the crew gets to the sun, but it’s an entertaining and intelligent ride while it lasts.


One Response to Ex Machina

  1. Nostra says:

    I don’t see it not following Asimov’s laws of robotics as a flaw. It was probably something when the AI was designed, wasn’t implemented. As for the movie itself I loved it on so many levels. The design was great, the story clever and the performances awesome.

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