Tuesday, April 28, 2015

God Complex: Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.

So-called “cerebral sci-fi” films are often like superhero origin stories, in that they can succumb to the third-act pitfall of not knowing what to do after their big revelations have landed. The burgeoning superhero finally dons a cape, the intelligent machine finally achieves self-awareness, and everything goes to shit. It’s a disappointing trend that debut director Alex Garland nimbly dodges by marrying the plot for his film, Ex Machina, with its underlying thematic structure – consciousness, manipulation, deceit, purpose, self-interest – in a way that feels both wholly natural and refreshingly unique. As an established screenwriter and novelist (Garland cut his teeth as a Danny Boyle mainstay, penning 28 Days Later and its sequel, as well as 2012’s undervalued Dredd), he’s well-equipped to do it. Strange, though, that one of the genre’s premiere examples of this narrative stumbling block was his own script for Boyle’s Sunshine (2007). Many critics are lambasting Ex Machina for its similarities to that promising-yet-disappointing interstellar excursion, but I don’t think they’re looking closely enough at what it does differently – and what it does better.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for “Bluebook,” the world’s largest search engine, and is selected by lottery to visit the sprawling compound of the company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (a bearded, fitness-obsessed Oscar Isaacs, like Mark Zuckerberg by way of Joe Rogan). Tucked away in his subterranean luxury lair, Nathan has built an artificial intelligence he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose hands and face are covered in beautiful silicone skin but whose body is a high-tech frame revealing her glowing, whirring innards – a vision in brushed metal and plastic. Caleb is tasked with administering a Turing test, to determine whether or not Ava could pass as human. There is a twist, however: in the classic test, the tester cannot see the computer, and therefore if they cannot distinguish the computer’s responses from a human’s, the test is passed; but Caleb is placed in a glass enclosure facing the room in which Ava is confined, where she is fully visible to him. This, Nathan explains, will be a true test of Ava’s AI: if Caleb can relate to her as though she were human while in full knowledge that she is an android, a passing grade will be very meaningful indeed.

The film’s emotional impact, which is visceral, would be significantly dulled by spoilers, so I will do my best to avoid any – but it’s a tricky business, because where the film really vindicates itself is in the details of its climax. The trailer (with the accompanying tagline “What will happen to me if I fail your test?”) directly suggest that Ex Machina will devolve into a slasher film in its third act, much the way Sunshine did. Although its tension – built gradually through nested character revelations and a striking colour palette that balances the clinical white interiors of the compound with the bright green outdoors, or the harsh, painful reds of the frequent security lockdowns – does eventually burst free in the form of violence, it’s not as simple as the AI suddenly becoming hostile, nor as indicative of the screenwriter simply running out of ideas. In fact, the conclusion is instrumental in layering even more ideas on top of the film’s already-dense foundation of SF quandary. Suffice it to say that it’s not just cut-and-paste plot twists that encourage a second viewing; the twists (and there are several) reinforce the thematic material in a way that makes the story far more interesting than it already was.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina.

There are several moments in Ex Machina that anticipate the audience’s questions, and either answer or discard them in the service of its own ideas. An early example is Caleb’s second conversation with Ava, in which she dons a patterned sun dress and a wig in order to appear more human, and the sexual tension between them slowly and painfully grows. You’re left wondering about the logistics of such a potential relationship – when has it ever worked out for a person who’s fallen in love with a machine? And, functionally speaking, would it even be possible? Later, when Caleb is accusing Nathan of giving Ava sexuality as a way to confuse the test, Nathan handily (and humourously) answers all our still-fresh questions about how realistic her sexual functions truly are. There can be no consciousness without sexuality, he claims, and he might be right – although the script never lets it remain that simple. Funny, isn’t it, that all the AI prototypes Nathan has ever built have been female?

This fantasy he creates, this Promethean power-trip, manifests in more ways than one. He plays at being God by day and stupefies himself with alcohol by night, which allows Caleb to act on the growing mistrust he feels towards his employer. The tiny cast makes the most of the limited setting, filling it with gripping performances – especially Isaacs, whose jocky hipster affectation masks Nathan’s powerful loneliness and hidden drive. Vikander is striking too, making Ava an object of both physical and philosophical fascination. Even Gleeson invests Caleb with unexpected agency, as a person intelligent enough to turn a rapidly-degrading situation to his advantage. Motivation is a slippery thing in Ex Machina, but it never wriggles free of Garland’s grasp; his role as both writer and director allow him to keep his plot, for once in his career, fully under control.

There’s a question that looms over Ex Machina, with its pat title and seemingly-tired concept: what does it bring to the already-crowded table of “AI wants to be human” stories in fiction? The answer lies not so much in content as in execution, as there isn’t much here that hasn’t been done before. But few SF films achieve this level of quiet, literary contemplation, and an existential sadness to match. There are no cop-outs, no easy answers, no storylines wrapped up neatly in a blood-soaked bow – and when the credits roll, there’s no way to be certain of whom to sympathize with. Whichever of the three characters you choose to champion, I suspect your choice says a lot more about you than the film itself (it was Nathan who captivated me most, for what it’s worth). And in my opinion, that kind of reflective, thought-provoking commentary is exactly what the best speculative fiction can inspire. This is one case in which leaving the cinema with more questions than when you came in is an excellent thing.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely review. Makes me want to see the movie.