Robots can be used for a lot of reasons in science fiction, but their most common use has traditionally been to act as a sort of means of exploring the exploitative elements in society. Many science fiction writers have questioned the morality of using self-aware machines as servants and slaves and have often used that as a means of examining humanities own inhumanity towards man. In the 21st Century we seem to have a new question about human-robot interaction: how long will it take before people start fucking their robots? Given how quickly it took for the internet to become a leading depository of pornography it would take a pretty naïve mind not to assume that carnal relations between humans and their robotic counterparts wouldn’t commence almost immediately once someone invents an automaton that is “equipped” for such encounters. Exactly what the morality of this state of affairs will differ. The Stanley Kubrick conceived A.I.: Artificial Intelligence with its gigolo-bots seemed fairly neutral on the issue, viewing prostitution as a sort of tragic existential destiny for those programed to such a fate, one that’s not worth fighting agains. Spike Jonze’ Her by contrast seemed to envision a healthy relationship between a human and an A.I. as being possible if somewhat difficult, not because of the limitations of the A.I. but because of the limitations of the human. Here to weigh in on the debate now is Alex Garland, whose views on humanity as expressed in the screenplays for films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine will probably leave audiences in the know without much suspense on where he falls on the issue.
The film is set in a near future and almost entirely in a remote estate owned by a multi-billionaire tech mogul named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Bateman has kept this estate isolated except for an Asian mistress/servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who doesn’t speak English, but for one week only he’s decided to invite one random employee named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to be the first visitor to this remote Alaskan getaway in order to examine his latest invention. That invention as it turns out is a very lifelike robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a very lifelike human body but without skin on its torso or neck (allowing the audience to see the wiring beneath), but with a highly advanced and lifelike artificial intelligence. Bateman is confident in the artificial body he’s created but wants Caleb to give an unbiased test of its artificial intelligence but the more Caleb talks with Ava the more that Bateman seems to be up to something, perhaps something sinister.
From the moment that Caleb lands in Nathan’s Alaskan getaway Nathan quickly establishes himself as the alpha-male in the house. The character is pretty different from the quiet and contemplative roles we saw Oscar Isaac take on in movies like Inside Llewan Davis and A Most Violent Year. I wouldn’t say it’s his best performance but it is one that better establishes his range and perhaps make his work in those other films all the more impressive. I was a little less impressed by Domhnall Gleeson, who’s made something of a career out of playing gangly doormats like this, but I suppose he does what’s called for by the script. Alicia Vikander doesn’t really re-write the book on robot performances either but then again I don’t really know how much she has to work with. Ava as a character just doesn’t seem like all that interesting of a robotic creation.
Early on Caleb suggests that he’s going to give Ava the Turing Test and Nathan suggests that she’s already past the Turing Test and that their testing needs to go deeper. Here’s the thing though, Ava doesn’t even come close to passing the Turing Test. That famous test suggests that an artificial intelligence needs to be able to interact with a human observer without the human being able to identify that the A.I. is in fact artificial. Ava though is clearly a bit too robotic in her mannerisms to pass this test. For example, early on she’s asked if she knows what an “icebreaker” is and responds by more or less reciting a dictionary definition of the term rather than giving the imprecise response an actual human would give. A more mindblowing robot would be one who really truly was indistinguishable from an actual woman and I think that Garland maybe should have pushed harder to make Ava into something that really does seem like a next step in robo-evolution. Spike Joze presented a much more fascinating A.I. in his 2013 film Her (a film that I initially found off-putting but am maybe coming to respect in the ensuing years), which also did a lot more to explore the murky and somewhat disturbing possibilities of a human and a computer forming a romantic or sexual bond.
Ex Machina works best if you think of it less as some kind of bold sci-fi vision and more as a sort of chamber drama about three characters engaged in a sort of battle of wills. I don’t want to talk too much about the various double-crosses and surprises that occur in the film, but to be frank they aren’t too hard to see coming. Overall, I’d say that Ex Machina is a pretty well made but generally unexceptional film. It has some neat set decoration, some cool performances, a handful of interesting conversations and it builds to a climax that is very Alex Garland. What it doesn’t really have is the thematic weight and originality that it seems to think it has. Today we’re pretty desperate for intelligent sci-fi, and to some extent we have to take what we can get, but I also can’t help but feel like I’ve seen this movie a number of times before. The drama unfolds interestingly enough for me to give the movie a light recommendation but the whole “should robots be given human rights” question has been posed so many times before that I really kind of needed a new twist on it in order to justify the existence of a film like this.
*** out of Four