It is in a world of rapidly advancing technology, one that reshapes itself dramatically every few years, that a film like Ex Machina is best dropped into. The questions that it wrestles with, including the nature of humanity and the line between technology and sentience, help to make better sense of the sorts of fears we might have as the current AI landscape becomes more and more like Ava from the film.
The story of Ex Machina is that programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen from his Google-like company for a weekend retreat at company-owner Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) mountain home. Once he gets there he finds out that he was selected not for a vacation, but rather because Nathan believes he has created a true AI in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to spend a week testing it to see if this is true. During the course of that week, Caleb starts to question what constitutes humanity and whether the increasingly erratic Nathan might even truly be human himself.
Isaac’s turn as Nathan is probably one of the standout performances of the year. Isaac has an amazing ability to play a highly restrained threat. You can always see the danger hiding right under the surface, but he keeps it in check, leaving the audience where Caleb is in wondering how much of that is in their imagination. It’s almost impossible to describe rationally what is so frightening about this person, but as the film goes on the tension keeps building and you can’t help but wonder when this bro-grammer genius will explode.
Vikander also does an amazing job of holding her emotions just below the surface so that you can’t help but question her humanity. There is less of a shift where you believe or don’t believe and more of a constant uncertainty, never giving you an argument for without providing an equally compelling argument against.
As Caleb continues to unravel the events that have been happening at Nathan’s complex for the past few years and plumbing the depths of what humans are capable of, we learn the consequences of rapidly advancing technology and start to think more deeply about the philosophical and ethical implications of AI.
One of the best aspects of this is the setting, a fortress inside of the mountain that is controlled in every respect by computers. Nathan uses computers to give him control over Caleb and everybody in his domain, including Ava and the various assistants that move around. In many ways, his tragic flaw is that he never quite understands that his quest for AI also means developing technology that can refuse to do this bidding. As the movie continues, we even see that the depraved Nathan subconsciously relishes the idea of making something that can tell him “no” because he wants to force it to do his will anyway.
Perhaps the only real drawback is that large portions of the audience will not understand where the film is coming from. Director Alex Garland, making his directorial debut, gives the audience a lot to think about and leaves them feeling uncertain at the end. Without giving anything away, it’s enough to make you question who the hero of the piece was supposed to be, whether you got it right, and why you jumped to that conclusion. Plenty of pixels have been spilled examining our assumptions about this movie and you should look those up, but ultimately it doesn’t tie things up neatly emotionally, even if it does so narratively.
Nathan exhibits an extreme form of the technophobia that permeates much of modern existence to a lesser extent. Humans are increasingly surrounded by technology, from security systems to surveillance drones, and that has significantly reduced privacy. On the other hand, it has made our lives easier. There are certainly reasons for our fear, but Ex Machina asks if this fear is of a new threat, or of a repackaged one: the fear of losing control.
Despite being low on action, Ex Machina is never slow and always compelling. A dialog-driven character piece that surprises with every twist, this film will have you questioning the viability of AI, the nature of humanity, and whether your Roomba is secretly harboring deep resentment toward you.
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