We are living in an age of wonders, when science fiction films can use the word “stochastic” like they mean it. It wasn’t all that long ago that science fiction cognoscenti could complain that sci-fi films were nothing but special effects extravaganzas with lots of explosions. “Where are the small, intelligent SF films?” they cried. Hard to imagine anyone complaining along those lines these days. Ex Machina is only the latest in a thriving world of intelligent science fiction films of late.
This is an artificial intelligence story. A young programmer named Caleb is summoned to the remote home of Nathan, who is the CEO of the search engine company Caleb works for. Nathan reveals that he has developed an artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to apply the Turing Test to it. (The Turing Test! Another sign of intelligence on the part of writer-director Alex Garland.) Nathan is introduced to a humanoid robot named Ava, and he proceeds to try to determine whether she is truly intelligent in a conscious way or whether she is just simulating intelligence.
As I left the theater I heard a couple complaining that the film was slow and boring. Clearly they could have done with an explosion or two. This is a film about ideas, and I found it utterly thrilling as such. It’s a story about what it means to be intelligent and what it means to be human. As such, it’s also a character study, particularly of the two men, with Oscar Isaac playing Nathan as a douchebag genius and Domhnall Gleeson playing Caleb as a sweet, naive nerd. Alicia Vikander as the AI Ava is perhaps less of a character and more of a plot device, but there is an almost inevitable enigma to Ava in that we, like Caleb, are trying to decide whether she is anything more than a program and, if so, what that would mean. One of the smart things the film does is confront head on the question that immediately occurred to me: Why does a machine like Ava have a sexuality at all? Why is it female? The way this question evolves as the story progresses is just one example of how Garland recomplicates the premise and challenges the assumptions of the characters and of the audience.
I really admired the way that Ex Machina treats the issue of artificial intelligence in non-hysterical terms while still giving voice to the fear that humans will be left in the dust by our own technological innovations. Stories of artificial intelligence are almost always about the value and dangers of intelligence, and this one is no exception. The hysterical variety of AI story tends to see intelligence as hubristic and self-destructive, and there’s a bit of that in Ex Machina too. Yet there’s also a pragmatic sense that intelligence is a superior survival tool, and that perhaps the question of how to use intelligence for self-preservation is the true Turing Test.