Scribe of The Beach turns director and produces a dazzling, thought-provoking science-fiction film about artificial intelligence.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 110 minutes
Not since the one-two of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in 1997 and Alex Proyas’s Dark City in 1998 has a big-budget, big-return film posited the kind of highly credible near future that obliges us to confront the philosophical dilemmas raised by technological advances that we find in Alex Garland’s stunning directorial début, Ex Machina.
The tale is set in a world in which the search engine “BlueBook” (the name is arguably the least creative aspect of the entire screenplay), the fictional equivalent of Google, collects and processes the data from everyone around the world with access to a communication device. The reason for this is that the head of the company – a reclusive 30-something named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is a prodigiously gifted programmer and wrote the base code for BlueBook at the age of 13 – wants to take human civilisation to the next level. His goal is to use all of this data to construct a creature with artificial intelligence (AI), the likes of which would be indistinguishable from an organically evolved human being.
To his credit, Garland, perhaps best-known for writing the novel The Beach, does not burden his story with theory or philosophical digressions. He uses a very small cast, centres the action in a single location for almost the entirety of the film and provides minimal but distinct signposts to track the development of the drama. His storytelling proficiency is most discernible in his use of small parables that distil the essence of the dynamics at play.
There is no big setup. The opening shots quickly convey a clinical office space full of glass – that alienating material that is both allows us to see through it but separates us from that which we see – and within a few seconds, the camera settles on a closeup of a pale, blond programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He receives a flickering message on his screen informing him he has won the first prize, and his colleagues flock to his desk to congratulate him. The prize is a visit to Nathan on his estate, which includes glaciers, mountains and a forest. The house itself is a curious mixture of the natural and the artificial, as it is built into rock but contains an immense array of technological devices that Nathan uses to protect himself from the outside world, and perhaps even from the others inside his house.
Caleb learns that he was selected to help Nathan perform a Turing test, which establishes whether someone can tell that a creature has AI and is not organic. The test subject looks half-machine, half-human and is called Ava. It might be a coincidence that the initials of the actress playing the part, Alicia Vikander, are AV, which also make up more than half the name of the character, but perhaps not. Of course, the first woman on earth, at least according to mythology, had a similar name: “Eve”.
But from the very first moment we meet him, we sense that there is something wrong with Nathan. He comes across as a guy who is comfortable in his own skin but trying a little too hard to be friends with Caleb, an employee in his company. He always walks around barefoot, makes flippant comments about his own role in the advancement of humanity and misquotes Caleb as saying he is a god. Something is not quite right, but we can’t put our finger on it, and Isaac is absolutely mesmerising in the role of a physically intimidating (at least, compared with Gleeson) individual who also has the dominant position in the power relationship and is a little unstable.
The controversial, highly topical issue of the mass collection of data by institutions ranging from governments around the world to search companies like Google is only obliquely addressed, but those who follow the news will not fail to notice it. In this case, the invasion of privacy is shocking but does not dominate the narrative in any way. Instead, it serves to underscore how embedded such actions have become in the information and communication industry.
Ex Machina develops at a gradual pace, with chapters marked out onscreen by title cards that merely display the number of the session between Caleb and Ava, which also correlates with the days he spends carrying out the test. Garland shows a remarkably firm hand with his narrative as he gently shifts the power dynamics, never deviates from his story and never loses our interest. It was a very clever move to have Ava remain a marginal character almost throughout, as her importance is deceptively minimised, and despite our concern for her well-being, we side with the men. Isaac (and Caleb, to a lesser extent) considers her to be little more than a machine, even though both of them are fully aware that she is in some way, primarily because of her exterior appearance, less than human.
Garland’s film is dazzling, and while this is a much more commercial approach to philosophical questions of existence than, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its chilling resolution will spark debate about the future of mankind and the possibility of peaceful existence with machines that are just like us. Hubris should not get the better of man when he has managed to be a creator like God. Man may have his reasons, but humanoid machines will, too, and that is essential to keep in mind.