MOVIE REVIEW: Ex Machina
"EX MACHINA"-- 4 STARS
Artificial intelligence is a topic that is on the Mount Rushmore of the best and most intriguing fictional story ideas. Beginning with bronze and clay statues coming to life in Plato and Homer's tales of classical mythology, the sophistication of artificial intelligence taking physical form has only expanded with invention and imagination of society since. With artistic mediums now that extend behind the written page, the creation and storytelling of artificial intelligence seems as limitless as the modern technology itself that may create myth into reality. From the awestruck sight of Maria/Futura from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" in 1927 to Baymax in Disney's Oscar-winning 2014 film "Big Hero 6" and every "Terminator" and "Transformer" in between, cinema has been a welcome home for bringing the topic of artificial intelligence to life.
The modestly budgeted "Ex Machina," the directorial debut of British screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "Sunshine," "Never Let Me Go"), is the latest cinematic experiment to tackle the idea of artificial intelligence within the genre of science fiction. It does so with a title referencing the often-used Greek phrase "deus ex machina." To cite Wikipedia for the ill-informed, "deus ex machina" is defined as a "plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object." In layman's terms, this is talking about your classic monkey wrench, curveball, or magic eraser in a film. Think the frogs raining at the end of "Magnolia" or the Eagles with oh-so-perfect timing in both J.R.R. Tolkien film trilogies. The key words in that description are "contrived" and "unexpected," meaning the some are good and some are bad.
"Ex Machina" has much more good than bad and much more surprise than contrivance when it comes to traversing the mine field that can be the science fiction topic of artificial intelligence, especially with a potentially damning title like that. The high-minded science is there. The ominous ambiance of implications and ramifications is properly defined. "Ex Machina" is very smartly created and makes the list of good (excuse my language) "mindfuck" films, joining the excellent and underseen "The One I Love" from last summer. But, it's still missing that next edge of sharpness or gear to ascend to the next level.
Domhnall Gleeson ("About Time," "Unbroken") stars as Caleb, a coding programmer for Blue Book, the largest and most-used search engine in the world. He is informed that he has won an employee contest to meet Blue Book's reclusive and ultra-successful creator Nathan, played by prolific "Inside Llewyn Davis" Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac (who will blow up in the next few years with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "X-Men: Apocalypse") and share in a special research project. Caleb is flown out of the city to Nathan's isolated compound and residence out behind the glaciers in the rural mountains of an unspecified country. Quick movie fact, "Ex Machina" was filmed at the luxurious Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen, Norway, which makes the glass house in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" look like your neighbor's shoddy backyard tool shed.
Nathan has eschewed the public eye for several years while working on his next great invention and discovery that he promises will change the world more than Blue Book. Living in solitude with a mute assistant (newcomer model and ballerina Sonoya Muzino), Nathan reveals to Caleb that he has developed a prototype humanoid robot named "Ava" (Swedish actress and dancer Alicia Vikander of "Anna Karenina" and "The Fifth Estate"). He wants to know how complete and functional Ava is and that's where Caleb comes in.
With this contest, Nathan was looking for a suitable foil and human subject for Ava to perform an elaborate week-long Turing Test, an in-depth examination, created by the late British intellectual Alan Turing (the same historical figure featured in "The Imitation Game" last year, more on this later), that tests a machine's ability to indistinguishably replicate intelligent and human behavior. Over the course of a week, isolated in this decadent fish bowl, Caleb interviews Ava daily and probes her ability to think, understand, adapt, problem solve, and even emote with consciousness while Nathan watches and documents everything through ever-present surveillance. As the test cuts deeper, so does the film's tension.
Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, future "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" co-stars, play off each other well. Gleeson gets thrown down a dizzying rat maze while Isaac pushes buttons with a saunter and swagger of invincibility that keeps us guessing. The real linchpin that makes "Ex Machina" convincing and compelling is Alicia Vikander. Created with a seamless combination of prosthetic makeup and deft special effects, Vikander gives Ava a soulful and haunting vibe that works to connect without being some Fembot knock-off. Even at her intentionally driest, Ava is fascinating and could make an honorable mention of my top movie robots of all-time from an old editorial.
As previously stated, "Ex Machina" is on the right track when it comes to wrestling with the big idea story tropes of artificial intelligence. More of this will be covered in the life lessons, but the clash of natural versus artificial is evoked by the humans, the robot, and the lavish modern-meets-idyllic setting. Human versus artificial interpretation of expressions and a mutual craving of social interaction between the different characters are two more notions of many that give heft to what could have devolved into cheap B-movie horror in lesser hands (and even worse, over-selling movie trailer editors than were already employed by Universal Pictures). Garland has always been able to write good stuff, but, now in the director's chair, he's in the driver's seat and scores a modest winner. "Ex Machina" works with a slow boil pace and keeps its lofty head above water to stay smarter than most science fiction films that beg for your attention with far more expensive and wasteful razzle dazzle. This isn't Kubrick, but it's a solid Andrew Niccol-level thinking exercise.
LESSON #1: IF YOU MAKE A ROBOT WOMAN THAT IS ATTRACTIVE, SOMEONE IS BOUND TO WANT TO FUCK IT-- Much like the virtual reality sex chat room scene in Spike Jonze's "Her," the near-farcical edge of sexuality in "Ex Machina" cannot be ignored. To its defense, sexuality does constitute an upper level human emotion and intelligence that does compose what makes us all unique. That theory is dabbled with by Nathan's development of Ava. Still, there must be an unwritten rule in science fiction where all female robots, scientific creations, or alien host beings (especially the murderous ones) have to look drop-dead gorgeous. Did we miss this in Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? Just once, can't some inventor just make a Plain Jane chick? Come on. Even Dot Matrix from "Spaceballs" has a killer body when you get drunk and think about it! Those legs! That skirt!
LESSON #2: THE NATURE AND PURPOSE OF A TURING TEST-- Alan Turing's 1950 test that he developed after his creation of the first computation machine in World War II is a bedrock principle in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. If you've ever filled in a CAPTCHA on a website to prove you're a human, you yourself have done a reverse variation of the Turing Test. The interview and interrogation of the Turing Test occupies a large majority of "Ex Machina" and is taken to a personal and intimate level with Caleb's interactions with and Nathan's programming of Ava. Her acts and behavior in "Ex Machina" are beyond call-and-response and unambiguous imitation. Fiction or not, even Turing himself would be amazed.
LESSON #3--THE CONSCIOUSNESS STEP OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE-- We have had some form of artificial intelligence operating in this world since the dawn of computers as far back as Turing and World War II. We've come from simple calculators to asking Google or Siri question on the spot in a very short amount of historical time. Plenty of machines of all types can take factors, variables, and given scenarios and interpret and solve those problems with programmed or systemic responses. The next step is where science fiction gladly takes over and sparks our wildest imaginations. That level is consciousness. What occur when an artificial intelligence can reason, perceive, learn, and, dare we say, feel external and internal stimuli. That's the lightning in a bottle that we haven't gotten to yet in real life.
LESSON #4: WHEN DOES SIMULATION END AND ACTUAL BEHAVIOR BEGIN-- The big dilemma in regard to Caleb observing and reacting to Ava is when the feelings of the simulation and Turing Test cross over into his actual thinking and behavior. The same is happening to Ava as she is interacting with her first human contact outside of Nathan. Caleb is supposed to be the one that knows this is just a test and just a robot, but even his consciousness and reasoning get altered in different ways, hence the "mindfuck" quality of the film. Can a person really care for something non-living that doesn't have human emotion? Along the same lines, can something advanced, yet without humanity, simulate emotion enough to convince and trigger an actual person's matching emotions? In a way, we're back to "Her" again. Now it's getting juicy.