Guest contributor Rogelio Rodríguez shares his thoughts on Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
Ex Machina (2015)
written and directed by Alex Garland
You’re probably in the presence of a great film when you can discern ideas from classic novels like Frankenstein (1818) or The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but they’re even better developed.
You’re probably in the presence of a great film when you see scenes that pleasantly remind you of Blade Runner (1982) or even older movies such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)… yet those scenes surpass them.
You’re probably in the presence of a great film when the protagonist’s body language subtly reminds you of Coppelia, the human-scale “doll” from the ballet of the same name.
You’re probably in the presence of a great film when, once it’s done, you find yourself saying “Wow, what an amazing story, intelligent dialogue, superb acting… One of the best I’ve ever seen!”
At least that’s what I found myself saying over and over at the end of Ex Machina.
In Ex Machina, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a coveted raffle: Spend a week in the isolated home of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a veritable computer genius who might also be the richest man on Earth. But it won’t be a vacation. In this remote high-tech cabin in the woods, Caleb finds out he’s been chosen to evaluate how human Nathan’s latest invention is: An advanced android named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) whose name takes us back to the Old Testament’s first woman and who possesses sex appeal, intelligence, and ingenuity beyond anything Caleb or even Nathan could ever have imagined.
The theme of artificial intelligence in movies has definitely taken a step forward in the last two or three years. 1
In 2013, Spike Jonze wrote and directed Her, a clever story of a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence that has the voice, thoughts, and feelings of a passionate and brilliant woman, but without a face or a body, since she was “only” an operating system.
In 2015, Alex Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina, a clever story of a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence that has the voice, thoughts, and feelings of a passionate and brilliant woman, but with a beautiful face and body that, albeit sculptural, shows internal mechanisms and electronics since she was “only” a robot.
Both movies dare to show us how artificial intelligence will reach its zenith once it can surpass our creative and intellectual level, but most of all when our feelings toward it are not different than what we feel towards other people. In other words, when we can love and even want the artificial intelligence itself.
I use the word “dare” fully knowing that these two films are not the first ones to show humans falling in love with AI’s. There have certainly been others. In the foolish version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) from Kenneth Branagh, Dr. Frankenstein loves the “girlfriend” he’s artificially created for himself (he constructs her in his laboratory from the remains of his real girlfriend, killed by the monster). In Blade Runner (1982), Harrison Ford’s character (perhaps an android himself) is attracted to the android portrayed by Sean Young (organic and beautiful, but synthesized by humans). And in the various adaptations of The Island of Doctor Moreau 2, the protagonist that is shipwrecked on the island has the hots for the “woman” that Moreau has built based on animal genetics. But in all these films, the manufactured women look and act like women. In Her, the girl has no presence at all (although you can’t help but imagine Scarlett Johansson as you listen to her voice), and in Ex Machina her body may be inciting, yet you can see all the internal lights and cables.
So let’s focus on Ex Machina and go over what makes it so great. We’ll have to remember the Turing test, “…a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine that is designed to generate human-like responses. If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.” 3
Does Nathan ask Caleb to apply the Turing test to Ava? Nope. And that’s why it’s important that we understand what the test is about, because just like Nathan explains, here it doesn’t work. It’s not needed because Ava is already beyond it, a conversation with her indistinguishable from talking to a human. And besides, Caleb can clearly see she’s a robot. The test that Nathan has in mind is more advanced than Turing’s: Will Ava have the same effect on Caleb that a real woman would have, even though Caleb knows she’s a machine? Of course, the answer is a resounding “yes,” and in the same way some movies show the hunter becoming the hunted, here the examiner could end up being examined… and the manipulator, manipulated.
Ex Machina: A movie full of cool ideas, well produced, directed, acted, scored, and over all, written. A new version of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but with a lot from Her, that maybe surpasses those two stories. One of the 100 favorite movies currently in my Top 10.
1. I also recommend Robot & Frank (2012), a little-known low-budget sci-fi gem set in the near future. Frank Langella plays Frank, an old ex-con who receives an unexpected gift from his son: A robot butler. The son believes the robot can help his father – senile and losing his mind – continue to live alone. It’s programmed to serve Frank in anything he may need or ask for, as long as it’s in benefit of his health. But the long in the tooth geezer is still quite astute, and he convinces the robot to become his sidekick in an elaborate plan to steal some precious jewels. After all, what better way to keep healthy? Robot & Frank is a lot of fun, and the relationship between the two characters posits and answers many questions regarding impending importance of artificial intelligence in our lives.
2. Regretfully, in the novel The Island of Doctor Moreau the character of the woman created by the doctor – his best laboratory invention – does not exist. Creating it for the movies and having him experiment with the emotions of the marooned man (will he like her or even notice she’s not human?) was a great idea. It certainly makes the movies more interesting in comparison to the H.G. Wells novel.
I watched Ex Machina a couple of months after Rogelio. Here’s my take:
Here’s one of the few good pieces of advice I learnt while in film school: Make your very first short or feature with just a couple of actors and sets, because the one thing that novice directors always forget is that they don’t know shit about directing. Your first movie needs to be your training ground, a place to learn camera blocking, improvisation skills, and how to communicate with the actors. The mistakes you make will teach you how to avoid them next time, when you move on to bigger, more challenging projects. This is certainly true. However, that doesn’t mean a first-time director can’t make a solid film, and such is the case with Ex Machina.
Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland is no stranger to cinema, having written 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007) for Danny Boyle, as well as adapting the novel Never Let Me Go (2010) to the big screen. His debut behind the camera with Ex Machina continues his fascination with sci-fi, with a simple story about a computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a one-week stay at the company CEO’s (Oscar Isaac) high-tech compound in the mountains. But it’s not all fun and games: The head honcho has created a female android by the name of Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants the employee to interact with her. Does Ava’s cutting-edge AI make her seem human? Is she capable of feelings? More importantly, and unbeknownst to Caleb, will Ava make him fall in love?
Garland gets fine performances from his three leads, specially Isaac as the hipster genius inventor. He also has a good eye for visuals, making the isolated house a veritable fortress of cold angles any robot would love to escape from. But his attempt at serious philosophical implications feel a bit hollow, and the climax lacks the resonance he seems to be aiming for. Still, Ex Machina is one smart, cool contraption, and one hell of a model for any beginning filmmaker.
Carlos I. Cuevas