Reaction Time: Ex Machina

Ex Machina represents Alex Garland’s directorial debut, but you wouldn’t assume so, for this is a confident film that achieves what it sets out to do. You might recognise his name as he has been involved with film since his debut novel The Beach (which was an instant success) was turned into a film by Danny Boyle. Since then Garland has become a respected screenplay writer and has also written for videogames as well, his passion for the medium was notably evident in The Beach.

Having such a close relationship with film and a deep interest in technology Ex Machina represents a perfect balance between the two; and balance is key aspect when thinking about the film.

Paranoia has always been present when discussions arise regarding the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and recently this has risen as a result of the fearmongering brought forward by notable theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warning that AI could bring about the end of mankind. Even Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) has started to express about AI that it could reach a point where it could no longer be controlled.

This is not a viewpoint shared by Garland. During a recent interview on Radio 4’s film programme he spoke of how he sees the advancement of AI as evolution. That when people have children they are creating life and passing on experience [nature/nurture], the same can be true with AI (which the film addresses directly at one point). Then when discussing about the idea of self replicating, he argued that there is little separating this from the process of reproduction.

Essentially the film centres around the Turing test, that being if a human is unable to determine whether or not that are in fact communicating with an AI rather than a human then it passes the test. This is the basis of the task that Nathan (Oscar Issac), founder of Internet search company Bluebook, sets for Caleb (Donhnall Gleeson) as part of his “prize” during his stay with the eclectic billionaire in his remote abode. It might sound trite to set the film almost exclusively within the confines of a glorified cabin in the middle of nowhere owned by a reclusive billionaire that is hiding more than it at first suggests. Then again this is addressed by Nathan immediately after Caleb is shown to his room (once of course he has signed the mandatory Non Disclosure Agreement), explaining how it also serves as his personal research facility. Plus this helps to reinforce the feeling of claustrophobia and keeps the viewer unnerved throughout.

The real star of Ex Machina is the AI herself, Ava, expertly portrayed by Alicia Vikander. She doesn’t just pull off playing a humanoid robot, but one that you believe could be self-aware. That if you were in Caleb’s position you would be actively trying to determine whether or not she passes the Turing test.

This is supported by Vikander’s excellent physicality, this is not in reference to how she looks, although the female form is a discussion point in the form and it is dealt with very tastefully, but how she physically handles herself, as she performs how one might imagine an advanced robot would maneuver itself.

The film might technically centre around her, yet the surrounded aspects of the film are not mere padding, nor is it superficial. Caleb could initially be seen to represent the viewer, so that they have a vehicle to understand what is going on, but he’s too knowledgeable for that, he is his own character with his own questions. Therefore his interactions with Nathan can be fascinating as they discuss the rationale regarding Ava’s existence. In addition is the intrigue involved in trying to determine the meaning behind Nathan’s half-truths and how he has utilised the benefits of owning a search engine like Bluebook.

Some people might assume that the film presents a cautionary tale regarding the future of AI and/or taking advantage of ever growing fear mongering. Yet that is not what the film is about, rather it is a story that incorporates the potential future technology. This can be explained by a line within the film by Nathan in response to Caleb asking why he created Ava, that it was an inevitability that someone would have done, so why not him? The real issue is not by why or how but when. The same rationale can be applied to Garland’s approach to the issue of AI and therefore why it is portrayed the way it is in the film.

The inevitability of AI’s evolution is less of a matter of science and technology getting out of control and more of an issue of humanities flaws. Early on Caleb describes the work that Nathan is doing as being in the realm of the Gods. Nathan can be seen as someone who might have a God complex, and the way he describes the reasoning behind why he designed Ava the way she is supports this. Although there are also elements of the corrupted father figure, which is evident in how he describes Ava’s interest in Caleb.

It is not just the flaws of humanity as whole, but the flaws of individuals that are explored. Nathan is a coding prodigy and Caleb, whilst no where as adept, is no fool. Sometimes people who are confident in their own intelligence can come off as grating, yet Nathan’s flaws seems more of a result of loneliness due to the necessity of his isolation, and Caleb has his own weaknesses which are exposed in a manner that seemed perfectly justified. The thing is they both have blind spots as a result of their flaws, and it is these blind spots that can be exploited.

These flaws helped the characters seem real, but this was greatly aided by that fact that no one made a decision that didn’t make sense that only served as a tool to drive the narrative in an intended direction. Just because not every decision was rational, doesn’t mean that they were irrational. Because of this you are constantly engaged in the film, wondering how the delicate equilibrium can be sustained within this claustrophobic space.

The design of the home is crucial to sustaining the tension, as a feeling of cabin fever grows throughout the duration of the film separating you from the rest of the world; just like how Ava is separated from everyone else from behind her pane of glass. Then there are the secrets waiting to be revealed, but these are closed behind the locked doors only to be exposed at the right moment.

Ex Machina respects its audience and expects a certain level of intelligence from them. It provides clues as to what the secrets waiting to be revealed might be and provides a satisfying experience as you come to the same realisation simultaneously with the characters. Garland manages to balance the overarching concepts of the film so that they do not beat the audience over the head with it, yet are also not just simply window dressing.

Ex Machina is an unsettling experience, for the right reasons. The atmosphere becomes increasingly tense as the characters unravel and the sense of cabin fever grows. Meanwhile the themes of AI and the advancement of technology in general are portrayed as a fascinating look into our potential future. If AI is to become the demise of mankind, it will be as a result of mankind flaws. Watch this and contemplate how humanity should criticise itself properly, rather than heading for the nearest bunker. Hawking might be there, but Garland will be embracing our technological future.


Ex Machina is out now in the UK and 10th of April in the US

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