Ex Machina

Posted on April 16, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use, intoxication
Violence/ Scariness: Violence and peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2015
Date Released to DVD: July 14, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00XI057M0
Copyright A24 2015
Copyright A24 2015

Movies about artificial intelligence or computers achieving consciousness are, of course, really about what it means to be human.

When software and hardware combine to mimic or exceed human qualities in “Her,” “Chappie,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Terminator,” or the upcoming Avengers sequel, even “Planet of the Apes,” it is a way to think about what it is that defines us. Alan Turing of “The Imitation Game” used our ability as humans to recognize each other as the famous Turing test to determine whether artificial intelligence has been created. The test is passed when a person cannot tell whether the entity on the other side of a conversation is human. If we cannot tell the difference, then we have to rethink our exceptionalist notions of human supremacy.  We accept, sometimes reluctantly, the notion that computers are vastly superior in computation and memory, that they can whomp us in chess or on Jeopardy.  But can a machine achieve what we think of as consciousness?  Or conscience?

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a computer programmer who gets the equivalent of Charlie Bucket’s golden ticket.  He wins a chance to spend a week at the home of the brilliant founder of his company (think Steve Jobs), a man who at age 13 invented the most powerful search engine and now lives in a home so remote that a helicopter flies over the thickly wooded property for two hours before they reach the residence.  They are in the middle of nowhere.  (The film was made at the stunning Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway.)

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, all brutish charm, feral, and entitled, with shaved head and beard), welcomes him with a rough candor, explaining that he is hung over, and giving Caleb a keycard, so that he will have access to those parts of the home where he is welcome and be kept out of those where he is not.  It turns out he has been brought there for a purpose.  Nathan has been working on what he describes as the greatest scientific advance of all time.  He is not creating a robot.  He is trying to create life.  He wants Caleb to perform the Turing test on his latest creation, named Ava (Alicia Vikander of “Anna Karenina”).  

But it turns out that it may not be Ava who is being tested.

Ava is gorgeously designed.  Nathan admits that he created her to be intensely appealing and she is, both her humanoid face and her transparent neck and midriff that allow us to glimpse her mechanics.  Vikander gives her a tentativeness and innocence, with a sweet seriousness and (at least at first) an endearing wish to please.  She tells Caleb to wait while she gets a surprise and it turns out to be clothes that cover up the machinery so well that it is not just the human part of Caleb that recognizes her as a part of the same species; it is the depths of the lizard brain instinct.  We may have wondered why Nathan’s test was conducted in a glass box that separates Ava and Caleb.  Perhaps it was to prevent him from abandoning the Turing test for a more animalistic evaluation based on smell and touch.

There is that always-compelling hubris/Frankenstein/Jurassic Park/sorcerer’s apprentice element of foolish, narcissistic grandiosity in creating something out of a grant vision without appreciating how dangerous it will be.  Something always goes wrong.  And anyone who does not realize that does not really understand that part of the essence of humanity, for better and worse, is the chasm between our ability to dream and our ability to execute.

First lesson: Isaac Asimov was right.  Second lesson: the qualities of human-hood go beyond syntactical complexity and conversational non-linearity.  To be human means independence of thought and action, and the pesky thing about independence is that it overlaps with rebellion.  We know computers can outsmart us.  Can they out-human us, too?  Is it any wonder that Caleb flays his own arm just to check that what is inside is not made of gears and chips?

Screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go”), directing for the first time, has an eye for gorgeous visuals and a superb sense of balancing the future-wow with the ordinary to make his sci-fi-style extrapolations amplify and illuminate who we are.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, substance abuse, explicit nudity and sexual situations, and violence.

Family discussion: What is Ava’s most human quality?  What is Nathan’s least human quality?

If you like this, try: Read up on the Turing test and watch movies like “A.I.” and “Her”


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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Science-Fiction

4 Replies to “Ex Machina”

    1. Yes, gadgety, it’s always a challenge to provide enough detail to give readers the information they want to know to decide whether they should see the movie without spoiling the important surprises. This movie had enough twists — and the information I included was revealed in the trailer so I thought it was fair game — that I think I found the right balance. But by all means, wait until you see the movie before you read the review, as you apparently did here.

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