Artificial intelligence is clearly the menace of the cinematic hour. The old menace posed by the Skynet of the “Terminator” franchise has taken on additional credibility in the era of “big data,” which offers the possibility of algorithmic analysis on a heretofore undreamt-of scale. Alex Garland’s recent thriller “Ex Machina,” however, trades guns for words and explosions for psychological turbulence, raising fundamental questions within a deeply intimate context.
“Ex Machina” opens as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, ironically inverting his “Black Mirror” role), a young search-engine coder, wins a mysterious contest. The prize? A week with company exec Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his off-the grid Icelandic research facility. It soon becomes clear that Caleb hasn’t been summoned for fun and games: Nathan needs him to participate in an upgraded version of the “Turing test,” an exercise designed to differentiate between man and machine. His specific task? Interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s ultimate AI creation, and ascertain whether she truly is the next step in the evolution of technology.
This is a slow-burning movie, and not one for the action-junkie set. This works to the film’s great credit: a Hitchcockian aura of mystery, conspiracy, and dread builds over time, and ultimately culminates in a genuinely fantastic climax that works on every level. From start to finish, the movie boldly heads into the more cerebral questions surrounding artificial intelligence, though it doesn’t always follow up on them to (this particular viewer’s) satisfaction.
“Ex Machina” deserves immense credit for raising timeless philosophical problems in a creative and compelling way; that said, its intellectual underpinnings are a bit off-kilter. Throughout “Ex Machina” there’s a tendency to treat the subjective experience of consciousness as a phenomenon which can be assembled piecemeal (at one point, Nathan speaks of “downloading more routines” into subsequent AI iterations) rather than something which can only be understood holistically (cf. Thomas Nagel). Moreover, it’s not entirely clear why a self-aware AI would elect to manifest itself via the limitations of human communication and interactions. The anthropomorphization makes for a compelling story, but a truly perpetually-learning, self-aware AI would probably be entirely alien in its affect. (Nathan mentions that Ava is connected to the vast search resources of the Internet, from which she can draw inferential patterns by looking at data aggregates; if this is the case, it’s not clear why Ava isn’t constantly evolving faster and faster). Nathan speaks of the “singularity” (this giant leap forward in technological self-awareness) as something to come in post-Ava iterations of his AI; this would suggest that Ava’s own intellectual functions are cabined within strictly defined parameters, a factor that would seem to cut against the idea of Ava’s emergent self-consciousness.
Perhaps most intriguingly, nowhere does “Ex Machina” probe the question of whether or not Ava is capable of moral reasoning. It is implied that Ava’s default ethic is a crude form of utilitarianism, though this is not specifically articulated. But is this a realistic assumption of the ethic Ava would espouse by default? For instance, would a Kantian/deontological ethic need to be hard-coded into Ava’s programming in order to trump a utilitarian default, or could a categorical imperative be logically deduced (as Kant himself sought to do) from the massive expanse of human experience? (Ava, after all, supposedly has access to the totality of the Internet simultaneously). This also raises the question of whether or not a self-aware AI which comes into existence almost instantaneously (plug it in, turn it on) could be capable of acting within a framework of virtue ethics, which require cultivation over time in order to develop within a given consciousness/soul. Director Alex Garland doesn’t explore the issue, but it’s fascinating food for thought.
(It bears note that none of this will have any impact on most viewers’ enjoyment of the film. As someone fascinated by philosophy-of-mind issues, these are the questions that popped into my head.)
The acting is strong all around (especially from Vikander, who turns in a remarkable “almost-human” performance), and the script is top-notch. A special note of praise is also warranted for the pulsing electronic soundtrack, which instantly evokes Cliff Martinez’s “Drive” score. The cinematography is workmanlike at best, with the exception of a few scenes towards the end, but this is a minor quibble. (It warrants brief mention that “Ex Machina” probably isn’t family-movie-night fare: there’s strong language throughout, as well as a fair amount of desexualized nudity in the context of “synthetic skin.”)
If eerie, philosophically charged sci-fi is your thing (as it is mine), “Ex Machina” is a revelation. It’s truly rare that wide-release movies are willing to probe the depths of the issues they raise (for a good example of this failure to engage with high-level concepts, see last week’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), and even if its intellectual gambits occasionally go awry, this remains an ever-fascinating and unpredictable tale. Highly recommended.
Dark, brilliant, and challenging. Hollywood – and the American public – need more films like this.