Spec Fic in Flix: Ex Machina--Real
There has been a glut of comic-book movies lately, but not much in the way of real science fiction. It seems like we get about one Inception or Gravity per year.
If that's true, then this year's "real" science fiction film is Ex Machina.
The first thing we know about Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) -- before we even know his name -- is that he won. (But what?)
He's on a helicopter over a craggy mountain landscape, near a modernist mountain mansion before we find out. What he won is a week with the founder of Bluebook, where he works as a programmer.
Bluebook is Google, basically, and its founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is Sergey Brin, basically. Instead of building self-driving cars, Nathan has been tinkering with cutting edge artificial intelligence, complete with sexy robotic body (Alicia Vikander). Nathan invites Caleb, over the course of the week, to apply the Turing Test to the robot named Ava -- that is, to see if she can pass as human.
Obviously, Caleb knows Ava is a machine -- you can see the glowing cables that run through her torso, legs, and arms. And obviously Nathan knows how Caleb's tests are going -- the mansion is fitted with security-card doors and surveillance cameras. But conversation still has its place. When the power goes out while Caleb is talking to Ava -- a frequent occurrence -- she reveals a side to her personality that Nathan doesn't know about. And Nathan, in spite of all the video and audio he gathers, prefers to chat with Caleb over beer about Ava's humanity, rather than just watch the results on his desktop.
Geeks, Bullies, and Blow-up Dolls
Gleeson plays Caleb as a flattered geek, honored to be in the same house with the brilliant founder of his company, and amazed at the marvel that is Ava. But sometimes Nathan makes him nervous.
Isaac's Nathan didn't get where he is by being a nerd-brain. He is smart, but he's also a competitor who sees business as a zero-sum game. His preferred exercise regimen is hitting the ol' punching bag, and he can be a bully.
Nathan has a darker side that isn't always innocuous. For one thing, he misquotes Caleb's guarded praise, choosing to hear sycophantic worship instead. And Nathan reveals that much of his research came from taking things that weren't his -- a completely plausible theft of personal data that makes it all the more disturbing.
The fact that Nathan has built a sexual robot is quite creepy. He has a smart explanation for doing so -- something about innate desire. But then he tells Caleb "you could fuck her, and she would enjoy it." If you think that's troubling, then I suppose you think of Ava as a person.
Of course, by casting a woman as Ava, rather than digitally building her, the movie has chosen our side for us. Vikander puts on her best glassy stare to convey her semi-robot-ness. One gets the sense she was cast because of her dancer's body, and not for her acting talent.
Under the Skin
What makes Ex Machina really good are the intelligent insights and meaty conundrums that underlie the story. Screenwriter Alex Garland (who wrote 28 Days Later, among others) also directs; this is his directorial debut.
Nathan has a large painting by Jackson Pollock. Isaac explains its presence in an impassioned speech to Caleb. Pollock's drive wasn't conscious, he explains. But it also wasn't purely random. For Nathan, tapping into that not-random, not-conscious impulse is the key to the success of creating artificial intelligence.
Ex Machina raises many issues other stories about robots have raised for years. Take the question of robot rights: If a robot passes the Turing test, then doesn't she in fact deserve civil rights like the rest of us? If Caleb accepted Nathan's invitation to have sex with Ava, would that be rape? When Nathan mothballs Ava or her prototype sisters, is that tantamount to murder?
Then you have the question of what to do about a robot so advanced that she no longer needs human maintenance. If Ava can outlearn a person, and if Avas can be mass produced, then what's left for us humans? Her creator thinks they could surpass us. He doesn't relish a world dominated by superior beings, ironically of his own creation, but he believes it's inevitable. If it weren't him, it would be someone else.
Ex Machina is only a two-hour entertainment and it doesn't necessarily have time to ruminate over all of these issues. But it brings them up in the background for audiences who know how to "read" science fiction, by bringing their own curiosity to the theater with them.
Maybe Ex Machina isn't the best take on robots, but it's pretty good, and it's loaded with currently relevant themes and subtexts.
For science fiction fans, that will do. At least for this year.