The following article contains plot details about the science fiction film Ex Machina. If you wish to remain unspoiled, take this as my recommendation that is well worth watching.
One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.
-Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina
Speculative science fiction can take you to some pretty frightening places. We can all remember times from when we were children, or maybe just last week, where we dreamed of the pie-in-the-sky technologies that would make our lives better. In science fiction, our flights of fancy are grounded by the possible unforeseen ramifications of new technology. Among the most robust subjects for speculative science fiction is mankind’s attempt to model our own minds while simultaneously removing the strictures that limit our mental abilities: artificial intelligence.
When you hear the term artificial intelligence, your impression will not doubt be informed by popular culture. You may think of Watson, the IBM-created artificially intelligent computer that trounced two of the world’s greatest Jeopardy players on national TV. Still, some scientists argue that Watson, while successful at being able to interpret and respond to human language, does not understand the inherent meaning of symbols which language signifies. Imagine developing an intelligence that had poured over volume after volume of the greatest human poetry and generated its own poems based on its assessment of rhyme scheme, rhythm, syntax, and commonly used imagery. You could theoretically get a unique poem that reads indistinguishably from a work generated by a human mind, but practically this intelligence would have no way of knowing the meaning behind the imagery, or have the emotional connection to it. To truly model human intelligence, must we also be able generate the emotions, desires, and even fears inherent to an intelligent being?
That’s where it gets dicey, as you can see in Ex Machina, the new film by Alex Garland in his directorial debut. The story of Ex Machina centers around a brilliant inventor and search engine mogul (Oscar Isaac) inviting an unassuming but nonetheless talented employee (Domhnall Gleeson) to his home/research facility in order to help perform a very important test on an experimental project. We are introduced to the Turing Test, a test proposed by Alan Turing, the same luminary computer scientist portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in last year’s The Imitation Game. Loosely put, the test refers to the ability of a computer to emulate human behavior to the point where it is indistinguishable from a human consciousness to the end user. This is, of course, not the end-all be-all of testing an artificial intelligence — plenty of so-called chatterbots can already fool the uninformed user into thinking they are conversing with a human partner. Gleeson’s ever perceptive Caleb is quick to point out that his task is also not a pure Turing Test, as he already knows up front that he is testing an artificial intelligence This is where you can see the grand scope of Nathan’s progress and ambition for what he plans to deliver to the world, not content with feigning artificial intelligence with a helpful voice on your smartphone, but in creating machines with true consciousness, complete with all the desires and ambitions that come along with the human condition.
What could possibly go wrong?
What I found admirable about this portrayal of the inherent problems of birthing artificial intelligence into the world is the relative subtlety with which it broaches the inevitable collapse (or success depending on your side of the fence) of the project. Hollywood tends to use artificial intelligence as a boogeyman for large scale catastrophes without really exploring the depths of what it entails. Transcendence recently featured Johnny Depp as a brilliant scientist whose advances in artificial intelligence culminate in him uploading his own consciousness into a computer, which naturally let’s him access any other computer on Earth because that’s how technology works, right? To be fair, this film does acknowledge some of the emotional fallibility inherent with the idea of a “thinking computer,” but it plays so fast and loose with speculative technology, it ends up being laughable.
What is likely to be the highest grossing movie of 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron, portrays its titular villain as an artificial intelligence that has manifested as a corrupted version of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) with the same protocols of worldwide peacekeeping, but the questionable methodology of — you’ll never guess — global extinction. I’m not going to shame Hollywood for their lack of imagination in creating believable adversaries; they’ve been doing well enough on their own. Killer robots are as good a stand-in for the near future setting as Nazis were for the past century. To reach the end of my circuitous point, when you are so accustomed to films skipping from the first implementation of an artificial intelligence to the inevitable world-controlling hive mind of uncaring robot overlords, its nice that a film like Ex Machina focuses not on the fact that there is a robot or that the singularity is looming on the horizon, but rather on the fact that this machine has consciousness, intelligence, and the ability to figure out its own place within the world it’s been unceremoniously thrust into.
Alicia Vikander is on point with her portrayal of Ava, an artificially intelligent being with synthetic skin that makes her appear almost human, but with mechanical limbs that betray her robotic core. Her motions are more fluid than the herky-jerky machinations of ’50s sci-fi robots, but are the deliberate, controlled actions of someone who has never set foot on a crowded street to see how people actually move. There is an interesting dynamic in the way that the story of Ava is told. Caleb is by all accounts the audience surrogate and de facto protagonist, but Ex Machina is really Ava’s story. There are elements early on in Caleb’s interaction with Ava that suggest something similar to Her, but luckily Garland realizes that there’s no need to repeat the human/artificial intelligence love story that has already been done so successfully. In some ways, it almost feels like the audience is lulled into the trappings of narrative convention with Caleb, in a way that serves to overlook Ava as having an independent will of her own. That is what makes it so subversive and effective when the movie shows that Ava really is a being of her own volition and that we (at least some of us) have been drawn into the narrative that she needs to be saved by Caleb. There is plenty of fascinating stuff about the gender politics inherent in this device, but I’ll point to another blogger who crystallized my half-formed thoughts on the subject better than I ever could.
One other issue that this film handles differently than other films in the genre is the it imbues humanity in the portrayal of synthetic consciousness. It is common technique in violent media to portray the adversaries being fought as less than human in order to lessen the impact of whatever brutality is delivered upon them. Again, I use the Avengers films as examples. When the faceless hordes of the enemy are inter-dimensional aliens or physical bodies being used by a robotic hive mind, seeing them crushed, dismembered, or blown to bits does not have the same psychological impact, as we are able to mentally lump them into roughly the same category as an exploding car or crumbling building. What this portrayal completely disregards, rather problematically, is that if these beings do have consciousness, their plight is every bit as horrifying as the instinctive twinge we feel when we see terrible things wrought upon a human body.
Ex Machina forces us to confront this hard-coded system of empathy when we see Ava discover the partial bodies of the experimental projects that Nathan has created prior to her. This scene draws on strains of body horror from the sickest slasher films, with torsos mounted in closets and limbs strewn about ground, but it is juxtaposed with the clinical, bloodless neatness of robotic circuitry. The images are immediately shocking, but we are able to rationalize as the audience that they are merely synthetic bodies, and so they don’t have the traumatic human experience that a human would have when forced into the same position — or do they? If successful in creating an artificial intelligence that is completely aware of itself, of its own wants and needs, and contemplative of its own identity, at what point does the artificial nature of its body become a moot point? Can you abuse a synthetic being, psychologically or physically? We humans seem to value our own state of consciousness as precious, either the result of millions of years of favorable genetic mutations we’re only beginning to understand or bestowed upon us by some higher being, but if we aim to create a consciousness that emulates our own in complexity, can we regard its experience as any less than our own?
Ex Machina does not wear these philosophical quandaries on its sleeve, but it leaves cracks in its veneer of taut techno-thriller for them to slowly seep in. Avid science fiction readers may find these ideas old hat, but it is rare for a movie to come along and present them in a way that serves to enrich the movie while still allowing the movie to thrill on its own merits — and everything from the beautiful, soft cinematography to the wonderfully apt soundtrack from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow proves that this is an enjoyable sensory experience, not merely a think-piece. If you’ve found yourself disappointed by sci-fi serving as window dressing for the boiler plate blockbuster that lies underneath, you can’t get a more refreshing change of pace than Ex Machina.
What are your thoughts on Ex Machina? What science fiction film introduced “big ideas” that left you fascinated after the movie ended? If you enjoyed reading this article, don’t forget to share it with your friends!