Published author and screenplay writer Alex Garland’s debut film takes age old concepts and gives them a fresh perspective. What gives Ex Machina a competitive edge against the recent Sci-Fi releases of late is the certainty Garland has in fusing the traditional Sci-Fi thriller genre with the more conceptual and provocative themes found in art house movies.
It is a film that interacts with fresh 21st century paranoia over AI quite claustrophobically (with only three main characters), sometimes heavy-handed, but is consistently interesting and clever enough to make up for its occasional gaffs.
Celeb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a twenty four year old coding genius that works for tech giant Blue Book. He’s “a good kid with a moral compass.” The film starts with Celeb winning a challenge that gifts him a week in isolation at a remote mountain retreat with Blue Book’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac.)
Although Ex Machina is set in America, the film was shot in Norway and Pinewood Studios. This gives it an interesting mix of subtle naturalism and hi-tech sets, and despite Nathan supposedly being one of the world’s richest men, the filmmakers weren’t exactly working on a blockbuster budget. The mountain retreat, from the outside, would fool audiences as being any more than an average holiday house. The surrounding wilderness is beautiful but wild. Nathan’s choice of high-tech interior design is highly influenced by 60s modernism. He owns an odd collect of art, from Gustave Klimt to Jackson Pollock. The music is just as retro as the furniture designs, and has the same gaze of young contemporary eyes. The center of all this, though, is the skull placed on the table in the living room.
Nathan turns out to be another manifestation of the Victor Frankenstein story; the next ‘modern Prometheus’ stealing fire from the gods and pushing nature in an uncomfortable direction. We’ve seen it all before, and it’s an ever-present theme in storytelling since the birth of Mary Shelley’s Victorian masterpiece. But much like the interior design and the music, Isaac is not typical; he has contemporary twists that takes the Prometheus legend to new areas entirely. His appearance, for example, is not your archetypal insane scientist. His head is shaven, he drinks to excess and then lays into a boxing punch bag to sweat it out. Nathan is a genius, but equally arrogant, egotistical with a hint of bitterness. At times he’s obnoxious.
This brings us back to Celeb. He is tasked to perform the ‘Turing Test’ (named after Alan Turing) that qualifies whether Nathan’s robot Ava can function as a human. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is also the love interest. She has a human face and hands, but from there it is an I, Robot inspired body-frame that reminds us viewers constantly of the conflict of the film. On paper, this is a very silly combination that would be hard to take seriously for the hard questions being asked about AI, so the fact we are kept engaged is a testament to the costume design.
Vikander trained as a dancer for the role, and she plays Ava as if she is cast in a ballet. She convinces us, as she does Caleb, that her feelings are authentic and her consciousness is human-like. Her eyes are emotive, expressing sadness very genuinely, and like the AI of Spike Jonze’s Her, seems to understand naturally what the male protagonist is feeling. She measures miniscule changes in Caleb’s emotions and feelings. But she is fascinated by her own being, which displays the most mysterious aspect of her character. She draws but doesn’t identify with her creations; Ava is on the search for something seemingly just out of her reach, trying to understand her identity just as a human would.
Director Alex Garland throws into the mix very contemporary themes of privacy and abuse of the power of surveillance too. Owning the largest tech company in the world, Nathan has at his fingertips the internet usage of his customers in intimate detail and uses this information to enhance his AI creations.
Unlike many science fiction films, the complicated language and explanations don’t get in the way of its narrative. For all its ‘Frankenstein’s robot’ set pieces, for example skin being peeled from the body and detached eyes, this is a commendable new approach to the Prometheus legend and the question of AI too. It is a claustrophobic ordeal as characters are stuck together in isolation while the themes take hold of the story. You just don’t know who is telling the truth as the tension mounts and the threat of violence looms.
It is a coincidence that Ex Machina was released in the same month as a large section of the scientific community signed a public letter warning of the threat of AI, but an interesting one at least. Stephen Hawking and his pals wrote, “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do.” And as this Isaac Asimov and Mary Shelley inspired tale warns, robots may have a dangerous natural instinct for independence.