How will we react to artificial intelligence if that becomes possible through technological advance? There have been many science fiction tales fascinated with that question which is alternatively intriguing and disturbing for good reasons, and “Ex Machina” gives us something memorably opposite to Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013). Like “Her”, “Ex Machina” also explores the possibility of emotional exchanges between human and artificial intelligence, but it goes into a dark, disturbing territory of deceit, obsession, and manipulation, and its chilly chamber drama is thoroughly compelling thanks to its clever handling of a familiar but ever-interesting science fiction premise.
The story is mainly viewed through a young hero who happens to get a chance of his lifetime on one day. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young computer programmer working in a very influential Internet search engine company named Bluebook, and the opening scene shows this shy lad getting a sudden message which notifies him that he is luckily selected as an employee to spend the whole week alone with his company’s famous CEO.
Still dazed by such a fortunate opportunity unexpectedly coming to him, Caleb is soon taken to a remote place in the middle of mountains and forests where Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has been leading a reclusive life in his big, glassy modern residence equipped with heavy high-tech security system. It looks like a nice, comfortable place for vacation at first, but it begins to feel more like a secret research facility as we look around its cold, abstract interior design including Jackson Pollock’s painting, and Nathan has no one in this solitary residence except his silent assistant/maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who does whatever her employer demands while not complaining much about that.
After persuading Caleb to sign a non-disclosure agreement document, Nathan reveals something which really surprises Caleb. Nathan is almost near the final stage of his development of artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to do a sort of advanced form of the Turing Test, a famous standard test which was devised by Alan Turing for determining whether a computer is smart enough to convincingly imitate a human being during its communication with a human judge and be subsequently recognized as artificial intelligence. In the original Turing test, a human judge is supposed to interact directly with neither a computer to be tested nor a human subject to function as the control, but Nathan, a brash scientific genius with the domineering alpha-male masculinity represented by his athletic body and bushy beard, is going to let Caleb meet his creation face-to-face during the upcoming sessions, and he seems to really want to know what will happen as a result.
When Caleb meets Nathan’s creation during their first meeting, he cannot help but be curious about Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot not only being equipped with the state-of-the-art artificial intelligence but also carrying the beguiling quality reminiscent of her senior female android robots in other SF films including Fake Maria in “Metropolis” (1927) and Rachel in “Blade Runner” (1982). Their first conversation is awkward to say the least, but Caleb finds himself slowly drawn to this sexy robot even though he is well aware of her nature from the beginning, and it seems Ava also likes him – at least on the surface.
As going through their next sessions to follow, the screenplay by the director Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplays for “28 Days Later…” (2002) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010), deftly mixes interesting ideas into the dense drama unfolded within its closed space. The dialogues in the film sometimes feel like long intellectual discussions, but they are interesting enough to make us muse on its through-provoking subjects and the following questions, and I especially enjoyed Caleb and Nathan’s amusing conversation on Ava’s female aspects (Seriously, is there any science fiction movie featuring a hunky male robot created by scientist heroine?)
Not so surprisingly, it is gradually revealed that there is a hidden intention behind Nathan’s plan, and the mood becomes all the more nervous and suspenseful while the story reveals itself as a dystopian hybrid of Frankenstein and Pygmalion. The ambient score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow brings more ominous feeling into the screen along with the cool, clinical ambience provided by Ron Hardy’s crisp cinematography, and there is even a bizarre moment when drunken Nathan crazily dances with Kyoto in front of baffled Caleb (and that is just the beginning, by the way).
Because it is basically a small chamber drama driven by its few main characters, “Ex Machina” depends a lot on its actors’ performances, and they are all terrific in their respective roles. While Domhnall Gleeson is believable as our normal guy stuck in an unusual situation which can be way over his head, Oscar Issac is captivating as a charismatic and caddish creator both exalted and depressed by what will be his greatest achievement, and Sonoya Mizuno is also effective in her small wordless role.
And Alicia Vikander, who incidentally co-starred with Gleeson in “Anna Karenina” (2012), gives a memorable performance of uncanny beauty and ambiguous grace as an elusive artificial intelligence character whose unlikely existence both touches and unnerves us. We surely feel sorry for her circumstance like Caleb, but we cannot help but wonder whether her ‘emotions’ are real, and the movie throws a serious question on what can possibly happen if artificial intelligence is introduced into our world. As Dr. Stephen Hawking recently warned us, should we be wary of this technological advance which can seriously affect our existence on the Earth? Or should we embrace it with optimism rather than showing negative responses to its uncertain possibilities?
“Ex Machina” is a very good science fiction film which made me think about its story and themes for a while after the screening, and I also admire how it carefully and thoughtfully builds its narrative with familiar materials until it eventually arrives at the finale. Its setting often feels contrived in several aspects (I am sure my neighbors in the College of Information Science & Technology of KAIST will be more amused than me if they watch it), and it is supported well by its mood and performances, and its inevitable logical conclusion may be appreciated by artificial intelligence if it comes into reality someday. I really wonder – what will artificial intelligence think of how we have imagined them?