Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Blogorium Review: Ex Machina

 There's really only one way that Ex Machina can end, and it does. It would hardly be fair to hold that against a film that poses so many intriguing questions about mankind and our relationship towards (if not, eventually, with) machines. For ninety or so minutes, we watch a Turing Test play out, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, with parameters that aren't well defined, and based on agendas we can't necessarily predict. And yet, despite the "all is not what it seems" atmosphere which is as pervasive throughout the film as it is in the trailer, writer / director Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) manages to address concerns as the narrative unfolds without betraying the audience. After all, there's only one way it can end, but how it gets there is best part.

 Ex Machina is ostensibly the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, Frank), a code writer for Blue Book, the largest search engine in the world. He wins a company raffle - of sorts - and is sent to spend a week at the estate of Blue Book's creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), for purposes undefined. There are clues in the opening scene that something else is going on, some subtle, some less so - although we don't know why until later. Nathan, who lives in the midst of a fortified compound in the midst of mountainside land (as the helicopter pilot explains when Caleb asks when they'll be at Nathan's property, "we've been flying over it for the last two hours!"), is very strict about who he allows to visit. Custom made ID badges are required, and they don't always grant access to rooms. Nathan himself, a coding prodigy who built Blue Book as a teenager, lives in isolation, exercising and drinking in equal measure. To say the least, Caleb is intimidated. This man is his boss, trying to talk to him like a friend, but under specific parameters. Parameters he's not always willing to divulge.

 But Caleb isn't really there to hang out with his boss for a week. No, Nathan's invited him for a very specific purpose, one that explains the need for no windows and a self-sustaining generator. And no cell phone service (can't leave that one out). Nathan's been working on an advanced artificial intelligence, and he's chosen Caleb to be the man to administer a Turing test. Can Caleb determine whether Ava (Alicia Vikander) passes for human or not? Nathan's already decided to bypass some of the original rules Alan Turing designed for the test: he's confident that if Caleb couldn't see Ava, he'd be convinced, so instead Caleb has to interact, to see. Ava has a human face, human hands, and fee, but is otherwise clearly a machine. So the question becomes, can Caleb, knowing he's talking to a machine, discern the presence of intelligence and be convinced that Ava is more than artifice?

 In writing the last paragraph, I caught myself trying to write the word "she" when referring to Ava, which is a nagging pet peeve I have, even for myself. The concept of trying to anthropomorphize, to gender identify, something which is explicitly identified as non-human is still difficult to shake. Pay attention to how many people refer to Apple's SIRI as a "her": because a woman recorded the audible responses that SIRI provides, we give it a gender. But SIRI is not a human being, and neither is Ava, which became the first philosophical point of contention I thought I would have with Ex Machina. Why sexualize Ava if all Nathan wants to do is prove its intelligence is genuine? Ava has a woman's face and hands, contoured plastic breasts and buttocks, so even if the arms and torso are transparent, even if the top of the head is, too, Caleb's eyes are going to be drawn to some degree to the fact that Nathan made a specific decision to gender-ize Ava.

 As it turns out, just as I was beginning to really think about the conscious decision to give Ava a gender, Garland chose to address it by having Caleb come right out and ask Nathan about it. The film is broken up into "sessions" between Caleb and Ava, punctuated by conversations with Nathan or sequences where Caleb learns more about the house. It's not far into the movie - maybe the second or third session - before the conversation comes up, and like many things which appear to be adhering to "audience expectation" tropes, there's a method to the madness. In fact, as Garland slowly reveals, there are several: Nathan has a specific reason for making Ava look like a young woman, one tied to the nature of the testing. But there are other reasons as well, although I'm not going to SPOIL much about Ex Machina. Suffice to say that many of the plot points I thought were or would be problematic turned out to be better thought out than your average screenplay.

 Ava is, indeed, quite impressive, and Caleb finds himself conflicted. On the one hand, he understands his role as the skeptic - he has to evaluate Ava from all possible angles, including whether Nathan's programming is responsible for its "flirtatious" behavior. By the same token, maybe Nathan is right that Caleb is "the first man Ava has seen" other than him. Nathan's a little looser when it comes to talking about Ava, and sometimes says "her," but I'm trying to refrain from that. They don't just talk about Ava, and it's very clear that Nathan has a secret agenda. He's also condescending and dismissive, except when he's not. There's something Caleb just can't trust about the parameters of this "test," which is confirmed when the power cuts out during a session with Ava. Ava warns Caleb that he shouldn't trust anything that Nathan says or does, which sets off the second half of Ex Machina. But which one of them is more trustworthy: the creation or the creator?

 Unfortunately, Caleb's only other point of communication is with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) - Nathan's housekeeper / cook / assistant, who can't speak, read, or understand English. Nathan prefers it that way, as it allows him to "talk about trade secrets" without fear of any leaks. Astute readers are already working out her role in the story, but since Kyoko appears so early in the film and there are so few characters, it would be unfair to leave her out. While attempting to negotiate his living space, or the fact that the television in his room only shows CCTV footage of Ava, Caleb continues his sessions, becoming more smitten with Ava's apparently genuine expressions of intelligence. Ava draws, turns lines of questions around on Caleb, and begins to blur the line between machine and human. In the last instance, literally: Ava puts on a dress, stockings, and a wig (left in a closet, one might assume, purposefully), which obscures much of the artificiality. The results on Caleb are somewhat predictable, although by that point he's far more concerned with Ava's status as "captive" in Nathan's home.

 Although I said there was only one way that Ex Machina could end, I'm not going to address it in this review. In fact, what has been covered leaves out a number of plot points, because there's a great benefit to not knowing much more than what you see in the trailer. That might even give away a bit too much, although the "what" of what happens is more interesting when the pieces of "why" it happens come together. It goes without saying that Caleb is also being tested, Nathan is being far less than straightforward, and that Ava is taking advantage of that. Or are all three of them manipulating the others, and themselves? There are a number of interesting Biblical allusions in the film, as well as nods to Frankenstein, The Allegory of the Cave, Star Trek, Blade Runner, and Oppenheimer's famous "now I am become Death" quote. There are also some smaller references to Wittgenstein, Close Encounters or the Third Kind, and Hoffmann's The Sandman.

 With such a small cast, it's hard to really say any one of the three leads stands out, although much of the credit goes to Alicia Vikander, who has to appear to be human without being human. Considering that most of her on-screen performance is a visual effect, Vikander manages to sell her role in /as the effect. The reasoning behind how Ava is capable of reproducing human expressions has its own interesting plot device, but Vikander's slow evolution on camera as Ava is most impressive. It's hard to tell who is the cat and who the mouse, as Gleeson slowly moves from star-struck rube to man in crisis to his own sense of (possibly misguided) agency. Isaac appears to have the more one-note role, playing Nathan mostly through intimidation - physically, mentally, and emotionally - but there are a few moments in the last act that shed light on him. Some for the better, some for the worse, but I feel like his last conversation with Caleb is a better glimpse into who Nathan really is than the diabolical puppeteer we've been taking him for. It all depends on whose side you take during Ex Machina - and don't worry, the title is quite appropriate - to how you react to the inevitability of its conclusion. Like I said, there's only one way it can end once the pieces are in place. Discovering how it gets to that point, however, is what makes the film worth your while.

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