Wednesday 19 April 2017

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2014)

A near-future psychological science thriller, Ex Machina peeks into the potential ramifications of evolving artificial intelligence and offers a stark vision.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for Blue Book, the world's dominant on-line search engine. Caleb wins an employee contest to spend a week at the home of Blue Book's reclusive founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). After a helicopter trip Caleb arrives at the luxurious but secluded house, where Nathan gives him his assignment for the week: Caleb is to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest artificially intelligent robot, to determine her level of self-consciousness through a version of the Turing test

Caleb starts spending time with Ava in sessions recorded and monitored by Nathan, and Ava quickly demonstrates that she is indeed supremely capable of displaying human cognition and emotions. Between the sessions Caleb gets to know Nathan, who emerges as a hard drinking, lonely but manipulative genius. When mysterious power outages start to repeatedly disrupt the interactions with Ava, Caleb suspects there is more going on than he initially believed.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is sparse, sometimes slow moving but always thought provoking. With the sleek look of detached modernity, Garland extends the Frankenstein narrative into the age of advanced robotics, and proposes a viable scenario where unintended consequences, both human and artificial, are the norm. When artificial intelligence includes heightened self awareness and inherent sexuality, the line between intelligent human and intelligent machine begins to blur, loyalties merge, and outcomes are predictably unpredictable.

The film is a three-person (or two-person, one robot) character study set almost entirely at Nathan's house, and the locations are limited to a handful of rooms. Garland effectively designs a theatrical dynamic where the three characters are forced to interact together by choice or design, and the implications of Ava's near-human levels of intellect and emotion are revealed through Caleb's eyes. Ava wastes no time in gaining the emotional upper hand and starts to dominate her visitor's psyche, maybe to get back at her creator or maybe just because she is bored and looking for an escape. Whether Nathan is implicated in her behaviour or simply her inventor is the puzzle that Caleb has to grapple with as the dark side of artificial intelligence evolution starts to emerge.

The film encounters a few substantive weaknesses. In stretching to 108 minutes of running time Garland notably runs out of original ideas about halfway through, and some of the scenes between Caleb and Nathan descend into tiresome drunken stupors. The ending picks up energy but in the wrong direction: Ex Machina abandons its more cerebral pursuits to chase more familiar but less satisfying conclusions. The robots are getting more clever, but the humans sometimes still get stuck in stock territory.

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