Can a machine ever be truly intelligent? Can it have feelings? If a machine fakes these things convincingly enough, at what point does the appearance become the real thing? Whatever the answer, Hollywood tends to remind us that it’s a bad idea to fall for robots and AIs, however seductive they look and however much they sound like Scarlett Johansson. Ex Machina is not alone in dramatising the Turing Test, but Alex Garland’s first film as a director is definitely a striking addition to the genre.
Ex Machina‘s Ava (Alicia Vikander) is one of the most intriguing movie AIs I’ve ever seen. It would have been easy just to make her a sexy, seductive woman that easily passes not just the Turing Test but whatever test would have to be devised to find out whether a computer can pass as human when flirting (the Samantha Test, perhaps?). Ava, while sexy, is clearly not human. It’s not her semi-transparent iMac design so much as the way she moves and talks so deliberately, the way she behaves. Is she only imitating human behaviour, is her learning process as yet incomplete – or is she something else altogether? Ava may be Ex Machina‘s greatest asset, but she is not the only character in this film whose behaviour falls into some uncanny valley. Her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a bullying genius for whom humanity has little to do with humaneness, and there is more than a little Bluebeard to him even before we see the remains of his previous ‘wives’ that he tellingly keeps in his bedroom. And then there’s Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who should be the excited kid that found the Golden Ticket, but who soon realises, if not soon enough, that he’s as much of a rat running around a maze as the beautiful subject whose intelligence he’s told to assess.
Ex Machina is a fascinating sci-fi three-hander, the kind of smart, philosophical science fiction that Alex Garland does well (even if he doesn’t always know how to end them), but it can be something of a cold fish, mostly due to Caleb being a somewhat frustrating character; he is awkward and aloof, but in ways that – together with his orphan background and lack of friends – made me wonder if his humanity was something we shouldn’t quite take for granted, and a hard-to-watch scene late in the film suggests that he harbours the same doubts. The film resists making him too much of an audience stand-in, which is an interesting choice – but it also creates a distance that kept me from fully engaging. Garland’s scripts, not least when directed by the likes of Danny Boyle or Mark Romanek, find intriguing ways of combining the cerebral and the emotional, the ethereal and the earthy, but I’m not sure I fully understand what, as a director, he does with Caleb. For lack of a better word, there’s an unfinished quality to him: as much as Ava is not human, she feels like more of a character than Caleb. I appreciate that Garland didn’t sentimentalise the character, but I haven’t yet found a way to integrate his oddness into either my feelings or my thoughts about Ex Machina.
Regardless of whether Caleb passes my own version of the Turing Test, Garland’s film succeeds at being intelligent sci-fi – and like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, there may be some quibbles about the ending (though to a much lesser extent than with Sunshine), but what Garland brings to genre cinema, whether as a writer or as a director, is a worthwhile addition. It would make for a fascinating, and uncomfortable, companion piece to Spike Jonze’s Her. It would be interesting to compare Samantha and Ava’s notes on humanity.
P.S.: Ex Machina isn’t Domhnall Gleeson’s first encounter of the robotic kind, although last time he was on the synthetic side of things. If the Gods of YouTube permit, you can check out the entirety of “Be Right Back” from the second series of Black Mirror. Well worth watching and at least as chilling as Ex Machina: