Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
The theory of Artificial Intelligence has always been a fascinating one. Is it possible for a machine to possess a human consciousness? What does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be a machine? Can thoughts and emotions be programmed? How does someone tell if a machine’s thoughts and feelings are real or artificial? This subject, which has been explored in a wide range of films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Her, is tackled by Alex Garland in his directorial debut Ex Machina. He addresses all of these questions and more as he sets out to understand the nature of Artificial Intelligence and the potential implications and ramifications it holds for mankind.
We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition and is selected to participate in an exclusive project for the company he works for. He is an introverted young man with no social life to speak of and who had never expected to ever be presented with this kind of opportunity. Without knowing where he is going or whom he is going to meet, Caleb is taken by helicopter to an isolated location deep in the woodlands where he is left alone to find the base of this secretive project. The woodlands provide a beautiful yet strangely ominous setting. There is something not quite right about this place; it seems almost too perfect. The unsettling tone and atmosphere that this place creates reverberates throughout the film.
Caleb eventually finds the base and meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner of the company. Nathan is a young, multi-millionaire genius who has brought Caleb on board to participate in the greatest scientific breakthrough in the history of mankind. Nathan reveals that he has built the world’s first Artificial Intelligence and that he wants Caleb to give it the Turing Test, the test that assesses a computer’s ability to exhibit the behaviour of a human being. It is Caleb’s task to determine whether Nathan has created a being capable of conscious thought and genuine emotion by interacting with it and forming a social bond with it. Like the woodlands they inhabit there is something menacing about Nathan’s character. He displays the behaviourisms of a man with something to hide and the way he candidly talks to Caleb combined with his incessant drinking all hint towards something disturbing.
Before long the test begins and Caleb is taken to the room where he will meet the subject. He is surrounded by a glass wall that will separate him from the AI where he notices a small crack, again hinting towards something sinister beneath this whole endeavour. We are then finally introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman. The two are instantly fascinated with each other as Ava shows herself to possess very human traits. She engages Caleb in intelligent conversation, she makes jokes, and she draws pictures which reflect her creativity. She also has a keen curiosity about Caleb, about humans, and about the outside world and shares with him her desire to one day see a busy road in the middle of a city where she can watch and observe all the people going about their varying activities. However when a power outage renders the cameras recording their conversations inactive, Ava delivers a warning to Caleb. She warns him that Nathan is a liar and that he must not trust him or anything he says. As soon as the power is restored Ava returns to normal and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.
As Caleb ventures deeper into this project his mind becomes more uncertain and his situation more hazardous. He does not know who he can trust or whether he can even trust himself. He starts to doubt his own judgement as he steadily becomes infatuated with Ava, who in turn reciprocates his affections. He starts to question whether there is more to this test than he was told. He wonders what exactly it is that Nathan is hiding from him. He contemplates whether Ava is trying to deceive him or if she’s even capable of deception. The relationship between him and Ava grows more intriguing and complex as he starts developing strong feelings for her and is overcome by a desire to help her.
The mystery surrounding Ex Machina is endlessly fascinating and stimulating. As soon as you start to think that you’ve figured it out, something new is revealed that changes your perception. It is a film that keeps you guessing up to the very end. The discussion surrounding the theme of Artificial Intelligence is also captivating as the nature of the human mind and what it means for a computer to display that nature are considered in an intelligent and interesting way. This film never provides any answers but instead provides food for thought so that the audience might find their own answers. The film draws parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as it considers the implications of creating a being with a human consciousness. It is Caleb who declares that “to erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”. An exciting thought but also a terrifying one.