Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need not necessarily apply in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. This writer of 28 Days Later and debut director crafts an intellectual challenge for Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and audiences to think through. That is, just what constitutes true artificial intelligence? Why do we fear it? The challenges of crafting the perfect AI is tough. Not only is the computer language that we know of today is not up to the challenge, but also there’s no heuristic theory that can successfully challenge the Turing Test — a method of finding out of a machine’s behaviour can indeed be indistinguishable from that of a human. To explore what it takes to achieve sentience is not the only focus here with this film, but rather what is required to meet cognition — in the sense of developing survival instincts — is.
Garland’s philosophical thriller is less about the effects and more about the drama between Caleb, his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and the “robot” he made named Ava (Alicia Vikander). What she represents will have some sci-fi enthusiasts comparing her to Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet or that in future incarnations like Lost in Space. Though fierce, there’s gentleness to be found.
However, Star Trek fans will quickly pick up on the fact that this story is very similar to the episode “Requiem for Methuselah.” Nathan wants to become god and control his Modern Prometheus. This genius recluse is the founder of a company that’s most likely bigger than Google and Microsoft combined. It’s only by having those two resources available can he experiment with robotics and AI coding. Just as interesting is in how he alludes genius to the works of art that he has hanging throughout. From Gustav Klimt (with the erotic imagery) to Jackson Pollock (famous for his abstacts), there has to be a process that they were using in crafting their works. Perhaps more emphasis is alluded to in the latter’s works, which looks like the inside of a brain. However random as the strokes were, there is magic to be found.
Garland likes to have the cinematographer Rob Hardy linger the camera around so viewers can absorb the symmetries being made onto (digital) film. That sadly slows the pace, as at least twelve minutes can be shaved to tighten the suspense. In a home that is nearly devoid of windows, Caleb wonders if he is trapped in a cave. Aside from Ava, the only person he can have conversations with is Nathan. There’s some brilliant rhetoric being made between the men. Literary enthusiasts may wonder if Garland was studying Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum before crafting this movie’s screenplay. There are moments in this movie where it nicely explores and questions over what kind of logic is needed to craft sentience.
This movie is the type of product that will get folks interested in the themes talking. Just what happens as this film moves from act to act (technically, there’s only three, but this film divides the sections into seven ‘interviews’) does slowly divulge who is manipulating who. There’s a creation story going on, and it’s not necessarily about Adam and Eve (Ava is a variation of this name) partaking from the Tree.
Perhaps the biggest question of who will escape this Garden of Eden begs further questions to be asked, including an iffy ending, namely just what has Nathan unleashed onto this world?
3½ Stars out of 5