At a time when Elon Musk and Bill Gates are laying stakes in the ground on how we should curb the rise of Artifical Intelligence, Garland’s Ex Machina comes at a time when such intelligence is a very realistic probability. We’ve seen films that present AI as sentient and deserving of life, but in a time so pertinent to subject matter, does Alex Garland offer anything new, anything relevant, and most importantly of all, anything instructive?
His debut, Ex Machina, fits the mould quite nicely as far as artistic progression goes. The enigmatic creator / programmer of the world’s most worryingly powerful search engine (I won’t draw any parallels here, but I wouldn’t type this sentence into the first search engine that pops to mind) holds a unique raffle to spend a week at his retreat. A lucky programmer Caleb wins, and is flown out to a bond villain’s wet dream; a lair only approachable by helicopter, densely thicketed by a forest and made of sturdy, trusty design. Instantly (Nathan is not a man of extreme subtlety) Caleb is told that he is here to administer the famous Turing test to what the BlueBook man thinks is the first iteration of true Artificial Intelligence. A claim that, if proven, would make him not a man, but a ‘god.’ Nathan likes this idea and asks Caleb to repeat it the next day.
Indeed, it is the artificial intelligence, Ava, that steals the show visually and thematically and too adorns the positively abundant marketing for the film, but this is equally Oscar Isaac’s film; his slow-burning rise is no secret to many moviegoers but it’s not insulting to say he is fairly middling in terms of status; all set to dramatically change with important (integral in some respects) roles in Star Wars and X-Men: Apocalypse. He imbues Nathan with qualities rarely seen in megalomaniacs (though his sense of grandeur and pomp is very, very justifiable on his accomplishments) self-doubt, a need to puff one’s feathers perhaps through this self-doubt, an ingratiating ability to appear a buddy you could potentially hang out with - he’s utterly unique, to put it short. Perhaps those qualities mirror a psychopath’s, and perhaps he is one. But he is a genius, foremost, and his character weights the film with gravitas constantly; discussing with Caleb how AI will look back at us like we look at fossils. His intelligence and poise is progressively counter-balanced by his murky moral compass effortlessly - he’s quite simply an assured fit.
The setting and the subtly unsettling nature of Nathan point towards the path the film might take and indeed probably the film we have in our mind before we watch it - but Garland swabs his picture with enough murkiness to make us question pre-conceived ideas. Visually, the film is less deliberately misleading: a debut so clear and concise in visual establishment and tone deserves full praise. Within the extremely contained, almost claustrophobic setting of Nathan’s complex, Garland writes his characters and directs his actors with enough aplomb that the film has movement through their interactions alone. Some of the best moments in this AI film come from the two men hashing out theories over a beer. One scene in particular that showcases Oscar Isaac’s hitherto unknown dancing talents seems destined to enter movie iconography - perfect positioning of actors, perfect lighting, and a note-perfect nestling of comedy within a super-serious narrative.
But this is Ava’s film, for all Nathan’s self-aggrandising and Caleb’s will to do something good. It is Ava, Nathan’s creation and purportedly the next step in AI evolution. Not through performance - though the relative newcomer easily holds her own with the other two - instead, because (oh so rightfully) this is a film about intelligence of the artificial kind. She is played deliberately robotic, somewhat infantile socially in speaking to Caleb, but her wonder at the human life and obvious displays of intelligence belie her open circuits and brain. Nathan reveals his gambit midway: she’s there to see if Caleb can process her as a robot and still think she’s human. A beautiful little intellectual nugget not devoured already by other AI works. That it is suggested Ava can genuinely feel and love is no new concept; think Blade Runner; but Ava is a new creation and one that should be welcomed heartily into AI canon. Ava can feel and think and experience, and it’s beautifully told and realised, but in an age where real AI seems destined to pop its self-aware head around the corner at any moment, a more radical, strong-stanced approach could have elevated it from superb to important.