- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Thus dictated Isaac Asimov, the Russian/American science-fiction author who dreamed of a human world that coexisted harmoniously with machines. But that was the 1940s, before movies like Forbidden Planet (1956) and 2001 (1968) drove the promise of artificial intelligence into the ground with dread and menace. Robots should be obedient and discerning, yes, but only if they have been configured to be.
The android in Ex Machina (pronounced mah-kee-nah), named Ava, has been configured to learn and absorb information at speeds so dizzying she can calculate the root formula of a human joke and recalibrate it for use later, in a different context. She is a new breed of robot, built not with cables and wiring but with internet search results and a soft, organic brain that I still don’t fully understand.
She has also been plastered with the inquisitive face of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who is sweet and charming and can deliver lines draped in both authority and curiosity, so we know what she is saying but cannot always be certain what she means by it.
This is crucial to her character because the plot of Ex Machina revolves around Ava’s interactions with a shy but enthusiastic programmer, who has been called in to the remote facility, where Ava was created, to test her artificial intelligence.
The programmer is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He is at once amazed that his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has managed to manufacture a working android that boasts cerebral capabilities so advanced she can distinguish the difference between casual conversation and flirting. Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava, to see if her synthetic mind can work like a human’s and not like a computer operating system. “You’re the first man she has seen who isn’t me”, Nathan tells him. “And I’m like her dad, right?”
Nathan subjects Caleb and Ava to a series of interview sessions in which the two get to know each other and Ava can sense through Caleb’s facial expressions that maybe Nathan might have an ulterior motive. The tone of Ex Machina adopts that of a great suspense film, where endless corridors and vast woods and locked doors could easily conceal dreaded secrets the world shouldn’t know about.
Indeed, Nathan seems fishy. He’s all alone in his facility/house, which is nestled so far into the forest it can only be accessed via chopper. He works out and drinks, then he works out again to kick the hangover. He allows Caleb into some rooms but not into others. He skulks about like a shadow, and has a slender Japanese servant girl (Sonoya Mizuno), who dances to disco music and prepares sushi and sees to Nathan’s sexual needs, but never says a word. Caleb regards her with bemused wonderment. So do we.
Ex Machina is written and directed by Alex Garland, whose inspirations are clearly visible. Ava is the physical personification of Samantha, the operating system from Her (2013) that spoke eerily like Scarlett Johansson. And the plot plays like Blade Runner (1982) crossed with a modernising of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. This is essentially a dramatic work of science-fiction, but we get the feeling that at any moment it could erupt into a great suspense thriller.
Speaking of which, Ex Machina ends on a note that left me a bit puzzled. I cannot give away too much, but what I can say is that Nathan is positioned in an unaccommodating light. He might even be a villain. What I want to know is, why? Why is he shaped into such a bad guy? Is what he’s doing really that wrong? Have we already crossed that line that blurs organic from synthetic? I don’t question the actions of Ava later in the film — she is an evolving machine with desires of freedom — but in a world that is still run by Mother Nature, where does that leave someone like Nathan?
Perhaps Ex Machina and Nathan are lessons for us. What the lesson is, I’m not too sure. I saw Nathan as an innocent, innovative, inventive soul who merely sought acceptance and needed to control his creation. Maybe he’s God and we’re like Ava. I don’t know. Garland taps into very intriguing ideas with his story, but I failed to scratch at anything very much deeper, and I get the sense that he did too.
We live an a science-fiction age where every new story feels the need to present some form of social commentary. The same can be said of Her and last year’s Under The Skin, a movie that trapped me in a vortex. I like to be provoked into thinking about things, but I gotta say, I miss the days when science-fiction got as complicated as Star Wars.
Best Moment | The dance. Definitely the dance.
Worst Moment | The ending. It was a good ending that seemed logical, but I can’t help but wonder if there might have been another path chosen for Nathan.