A Year of Unlimited #13 – Ex Machina

This is the latest in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!

I sometimes feel like I should wait after a film to make a judgement – but in the case of Ex Machina, I feel the complete opposite. If I don’t say why I think it’s one of the very best sci-fi films I’ve seen while it’s still fresh in my mind, some of the thoughts it provoked might get lost – and how this film makes you think is a significant part of what makes it so damn good.

Coder and office worker Caleb (Domnhall Gleason) wins a competition to spend a week with his reclusive, Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Tony Stark-style boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and on reaching Nathan’s remote home and research centre (where I would love to live), Caleb discovers his boss is aiming to create artificial intelligence, and is tasked with interrogating robotic creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to see if she’s the first successful example of AI.

First-time director and writer Alex Garland (whose previous scripts include The Beach, Dredd, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go) manages to bring together the science of AI, the ethics of potential machine consciousness and the interconnections of modern life in a sophisticated but gripping drama. That this is his first film as director is astonishing – and I really look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

AI recurs as a plot device in so much science-fiction, and is a huge talking point in reality, and what Ex Machina does is explore our approaches to AI – its possibilities, its dangers and its feasibility, alongside humanity’s uncertainty and fallibility when it comes to creating a new, unknown form of life.

The film only features four characters, with Sonoya Mizuno’s mysterious, enigmatic assistant Kyoko complementing the aforementioned Caleb, Nathan and Ava in a pivotal bit-part. This smaller cast only adds to the tautness, with Gleeson’s Caleb the outsider entering Nathan’s mysterious, secluded home, and the Irish actor provides humanity, doubt and a sense of unease amidst the minimal, mechanical setting, contrasting with Isaac’s meathead, laddish genius, who is an unravelling mess of contradictions from the onset. It’s safe to say that if neither were as good the film would suffer, but it’s Vikander’s Ava who ties the film together.

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Her jerky, inhuman movements combine with a visible sense of maturity and increased conciousness – as she interacts with Caleb, she almost absorbs humanity from him – but there’s a creeping sense that something is being withheld, through little tics or movements, and the performance is perhaps as thought-through a portrayal of a learning artificial intelligence as I’ve seen on film.

Speaking of which, the depth of this film’s intelligence is what really appeals. So many films dismiss AI as a world-ending, destructive force, but here Garland addresses the tests, analyses and theories scientists use in reality to form the ethical drama – what would an AI be capable of, were it created? How would we know beyond doubt it was indeed conscious? Where does programming end and self-awareness begin? The special effects help to sell the illusion of a robotic construct, with Vikander’s body seamlessly removed and replaced with a biomechanical frame, and it’s perhaps because the rest of the film requires no effects that the filmmakers were able to focus all their resources onto making this even better.

The film takes different paths to its conclusion than expected, which feels natural and liberating compared to other AI narratives, and its clinical setting in Nathan’s billion-dollar home are carefully contrasted with the outstanding natural beauty it’s secluded within. Even this can be seen as a (laboured) metaphor for consciousness, with the sophisticated, artificial home no substitute for the natural, stunning environment outside, yet awe and wonder consumes the two men indoors in the form of Ava.

I enjoyed this film so much because even two hours later I’m still thinking about it, unravelling its plot to find more connections and metaphors. I can’t fault it – though I’m sure, given time, I might identify something – and I seriously recommend anyone who enjoys science-fiction or a thought-provoking film to watch Ex Machina.

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