What I'm Watching: Ex Machina
Back again for another review (And posting later than I wanted, but I had internet upgrade issues that delayed me writing, but still, here it is!), and today's look is at what I feel is one of the best science fiction movies of the year, if not the 21st Century, Ex Machina. Yeah, I am not burying the lede on this one.
Ex Machina is about Caleb, a guy working for a tech company, who gets plucked out if his everyday life by his eccentric, reclusive, and genuis of a boss, who wants him to administer a Turing test to the AI he's developing. But once Caleb meets the AI, he's surprised to find that it has been housed in the body of a *fairly* humanoid body, although still clearly robotic, save for her face.
What proceeds is a manipulation on multiple levels, as his boss Nathan pokes at Caleb just as much as Caleb pokes at Ava. But ultimately, who is manipulating whom, and to what ends? And beyond the story and the plotting, there's a nice look at what it means to be human, what is consciousness, and everything you'd expect from this setup.
It's interesting to take the AI directly to this next level and even beyond, rather than dully interacting with, as Nathan describes the usual procedure, a 'grey box'. One does question why, if Nathan has all this extremely high, next level tech, why he's not pushing some of it out there, since this is WAY above and beyond the state of the art.
Jason Isaac's Nathan is wonderfully eccentric in the best crazy genius kinda way. He's Steve Jobs to the nth level. And yet there's a charm and charisma about him. Most of the time he's likable, and even approachable, but you can tell there's darkness lurking there. Which makes how dark things get, and the things he's done, all the worse, and all the more palpable when we find out what's going on.
I cannot speak highly enough of Alicia Vikander as Ava. She presents this wonderfully innocent person, and yes I say person. She's a fully realised character, not just some program reciting responses by rote, and you believe her. She nails this uncanny valley-esque look to her, and reacts perfectly, in her face and motions. She's robotic and human all at the same time. I especially lover her fidgeting, as it feels nervously human, while at the same time being twitchly robotic in motion.
Also the effects on her are just as amazing, taking her performance and making large chunks of her this transparent, see through chasis to see the guts, and make her that much more machinelike. All of these things combine for one of the more compelling performances I've seen.
I'm not sure if how they present the Turing test here is really that accurate or proper, but it's probably better to just brush that aside and roll with the story, much like how Nathan's sitting on a lot of massive tech.
The movie takes place over the course of a week, but it feels so much longer, in a GOOD way. The movie is packed with stuff, and it's almost incredulous that they could pack so much into any given single day.
It takes a bit for the plot to get going, as Caleb is slowly dropped into Nathan's estate, and pulled into the enclosed, claustrophobic world he'll spend the movie in, but once Ava appears, the plot really gets going, and doesn't waste much time to introduce that there's Something More going on here.
As I've said, there's a few things that make you go huh? but once you're immersed in the story, and you get past the setup and give the movie a pass or two to get us on the road to the story they want to tell (As you must do with most stories), it's a great ride.
The movie has a number of twists to the tale, and some you see coming, some you don't, and others jump right out of nowhere, and are still wonderfully set up. It all hangs together wonderfully well.
This is exactly the sort of science fiction I love. Sure, the shoot em up, explosions and space battles stuff is GREAT, but any day of the week, give me the DEEP science fiction, the stuff that asks the big questions and has things to say, hidden beneath the gimmick of talking robots. And Ex Machina is precisely that. It gives you a great story, with twists, and occasional action, but it's largely a drama and a thriller, pondering just what consciousness is, and it's so so wonderful.
And of course, it all comes complete with a trademarked Controversial Ending. They talk a lot about how Ava has to charge herself via induction plates in the facility, but she eventually escapes, as she must really. And that does lead to the question of how she charges, and that's a fair point.
I think this is an ending that works best as a philosophical one, on multiple levels. It ties back to a story/thought experiment early on in the movie, "Mary in the black and white room" which illustrates the line between computer and human, and Ava has crossed it when she escapes, much like Mary in the story is in the 'human' world once she escapes the black and white room for the world of colour. I really like that thought, as long as you don't let the facts get in the way.
Also, let's say her charge WILL run out, and she can't come up with some way to recharge. There's a notion that even a moment of freedom is better than a lifetime of imprisonment, and I think that is crucial to Ava's character. She wants to be free, she wants to be human, and even if she walks out of the building and knows she'll shut down at some point (They never say HOW long her batteries will run), then even that brief time amongst humanity is worth the attempt to escape, to live, to be free, than remain living trapped in a small room under Nathan's thumb. I thought of this immediately. Sure, she might 'die' soon, but she'll die free, and that's what the story is about, to a large extent.
The movie is written and directed by Alex Garland, who also wrote the recent Dredd movie I loved, and he shows he can do the big scifi action, and the more thought provoking stuff with Ex Machina. The movie is filled with great imagery, with tons of reflections, and symbolism. In almost every shot, there's a reflection of Ava somewhere, or someone. Sometimes, the 'reflection' is less literal, and you have Ava and Caleb mirroring each other, which has its ultimate reversal at the end of the movie, with her free, and Caleb trapped in her room, leaving us to question who is truly free, who is trapped, and if Ava's confinement is what made her less than human, what of Caleb?
Yeah, this is such a wonderful movie, and I am loving this shift we're seeing back to more thought, deep science fiction. And it's being given the space to live right beside the more big, popcorn stuff. And sometimes, they even pull off melding the two. I hesitate to call this 'hard science fiction' but it is the closest thing we've gotten to that in a good long while, and I hope we see more and more of all kinds of sf.
Ex Machina is a thrilling ride, with a small but solid and capable cast, with a well told story, and became one of my favourite movies this year. Check it out, definitely.