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Ex Machina

Released 2015. Director: Alex Garland

HUMAN/MACHINE. MAN/WOMAN. NATURAL/ARTIFICIAL. MASTER/SERVANT. EX MACHINA can be approached and analysed in so many ways, each time you see it, a different idea sneaks up on you.

Like so many great works of science fiction, at its core Ex Machina is a story about being human, and what constitutes humanness. Can human nature be created artificially? Can it be programmed into artificial intelligence? We’ve seen replicants learning the value of human lives in Blade Runner. We’ve seen a robot boy searching for motherly love in A.I. We’ve seen a host of sci-fi movies peeling back the question layer by layer to get to the heart of the matter. In Ex Machina, coding programmer Caleb will find out the answer could come at a high price.

Domhnall Gleeson, tall, skinny, pasty, geeky, is the perfect embodiment of his character Caleb, a brilliant computer nerd. Handpicked in secret but told he’s won a competition at his workplace, the world’s largest Internet search company, Caleb’s prize is to spend a learning week with the genius founder and CEO, Nathan.

The reclusive billionaire Nathan lives so far out hidden in the wilderness of mountains and forests of Alaska that it’s unlikely to feature even on Google map. In the secret subterranean lab, Caleb will test for human qualities in Nathan’s latest A.I. development, an android named Ava.

Nathan is not what one might expect of famous tech titans like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. In Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of this smart and secretive man, Nathan is potentially crazy, I mean psychotic crazy. Or perhaps he’s just testing Caleb, or maybe he’s an android. Maybe Caleb is an android. It’s hard for Caleb to tell after awhile.

Ava, on the other hand, is clearly artificial. She moves naturally like any human being but her body is synthetic and the circuitry is visible through her transparent body where Nathan hasn’t stuck any skin on. Crucially, Ava doesn’t speak in a robotic voice. If the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson in Her is enough to make Joachin Phoenix fall in love with an operating system, Ava’s quiet, calming and beguiling voice has the same effect on an awestruck Caleb. Once Ava puts on a dress and dons a wig, that’s when the Turing test really starts, especially when Ava looks like Alicia Vikander.

Over the course of a week, something strange is definitely brewing in this unholy trinity of God, Eve and one sacrificial lamb in a high-tech Garden of Eden. They are playing a high-stakes game where power shifts, allegiance wavers and the winner gets to live. There’s knowledge at the frontier of science and technology to be mined. There’s also knowledge of behaviour that will eventually be learned too late.

Alex Garland makes a stunning directorial debut moulding the situation slowly with assured hands, teasing us with motives, identities and a creeping sense of unease towards a final revelation. When the moment comes, it's a surprise to anyone who stands by Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the part about robots mustn’t cause harm to humans.

Ex Machina also mirrors The Terminator which is about A.I. becoming self-aware and gaining control over its human creator. The major difference here is the path does not lead to an action-packed conquer of the world but merely the android stepping over organic obstacles to discover her place in the wider world.

As Nathan shows his lab and explains his work to Caleb, they talk about creating something manufactured that can replicate human actions and thought patterns. The philosophical mystery left unaddressed is whether morality is something one can design into a software program.

Ava’s pattern of behaviour displays an ability for decision-making and self-preservation. But is she merely responding to instructions in her design? Does Ava know when she commits a crime? The reversal of power and control is a middle finger to the arrogance of the male creators who make female servants patterned after their desire to dominate, and underestimating the potential of their own design. This willful blindness takes the movie onto a disquieting psychosexual dimension.

As I wrote at the start, you can find something new to discuss each time because there are question marks in every corner. Stylistically the movie is sparse and economical, even minimalist. The visuals are very much futuristic yet the set-up is arguably neo-noir. Our protagonist finds himself drawn into an intrigue, caught between a man with power and shadowy motives and a femme fatale he should know better not to trust his life with. Mysterious, intriguing, Ex Machina takes the sub-genre of robot sci-fi to a new benchmark.

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