“Ex Machina” may be the sleeper hit of the summer, of 2015, by some movie reviewer. What is true about the movie is that it is an excellent evolution of the artificial intelligence (AI) genre.
There are three main characters in the movie. Two are human and the third is the creation of a female robot with advanced AI capabilities. At first glance, you can presume that the experiment is controlled, but like most AI movies, the opposite is true.
The human representatives in the movie are Domhnall Gleason, as Caleb, and Corey Johnson, as Jay. Caleb is an over the top genius who is the lone researcher in a remote, massive lab. Jay is a contest winner of a small but select group of aspiring computer programmers.
One of the first points you noticed about the movie is the contrast between freedom and imprisonment, the great outdoors and chosen isolation. Caleb seems quite content in his massive laboratory, and keeps in shape by sparring with a punching bag. He has a female servant, Kyoko, who neither speaks nor understands a word of English.
This quality of Kyoko allows Caleb complete freedom of speech without his work or secrets compromised. This is a bit unsettling to Jay, as he does not find the thought of a woman slave particularly appealing. He realizes something is not quite right with Kyoko, not the concept of slavery.
The special effects, such a lifelike, yet, obviously artificial woman, are commendable. The difficulty is to present the idea that Ava is human while maintaining an aura of a mechanism.
The actor, Alicia Vikander, does a superb job in mixing and matching the two separate worlds. You sense that she has a desire for freedom while accepting the fact that her design is only purposeful. The conflict for Jay, and the audience, is trying to determine what side of Ava you are seeing.
A key controls the living quarters of Jay. The key has limited access. Caleb makes sure Jay understands the rules, having him sign a EULA before being able to proceed. Jay hesitates, but is more interested in being part of a historical breakthrough than any legal limitations.
The laboratory environment of the movie can be somewhat claustrophobic, at times. The director does a good job of preventing the audience from a sense of trapped closeness. Several well-placed scenes that are images in Ava’s mind, rather than any escape accomplish this for Jay.
The Turning Test helps evaluate the effectiveness of the program written by Ava. The dialog has some technical jargon during several of the conversations between Jay and Caleb. However, it does not interfere with the pace or progress of the movie.
Jay’s relationship with Ava is at first a cautious and indifferent one. He knows Ava is an experiment, but Caleb has done admirably well with his AI creation. Part of the Turing Test is whether Ava is acceptable as a human being.
Caleb confronts Jay during the course of a normal conversation. He wants to know whether Jay has any feelings towards Ava. The idea is that an AI construction is not capable of true emotions, while humans are.
This part of the movie challenges the audience to separate Ava, the machine, from Ava as AI. It is not easy to do and thus further complicates the plot. Essentially, you are finding yourself with the same dilemma as Jay.
In comparing other movies of the AI genre, “Ex Machina” does it with a small cast and a well-known problem. Watching the movie has you asking more questions, even if you know the predictable outcome. The small cast focuses your attention on the plot, not the characters.
As the movie progresses, you realize not everything is as it seems. Kyoto does a dance routine with Caleb that is a strong hint to her actual identity. Ava barely begins to demonstrate her capacity to feel emotionally.
The succession of Turing interviews moves forward, but there are intermittent power outages that interrupt the testing. These interruptions prevent Caleb from personally viewing or video recording the interviews. What Caleb knows and does not know is a constant puzzle through the movie.
As an audience member, you are suspicious about the motives of Caleb. Many of his actions are suspicious to say the least, leaving you wondering what his true motives are. Most of the movie he is in the background, appearing only enough to let you know he is in control.
Here is where much of the movie has its excellence. You do not really know who to trust or who to believe. Jay seems like the innocent party in this test, but he seems drawn in by the same suspicion.
Is it Ava, who is playing the games with Jay? Is Caleb in full control of his creation despite his apparent aloofness? The role of Kyoto in the movie does not become clear until the end.
There are a number of moral and ethical questions running through the minds of the audience. During the movie, Jay asks what happens if Ava fails the test. Caleb coldly answers that he simply turns her off and replaces her brain with a new unit.
Later, Ava asks why it is acceptable for humans to choose, randomly, to end an AI life. This is a point where you begin wondering about the ethics of AI as it applies to the creations. If AI units could end an unacceptable human life, should they do so?
Though some may think this is a movie for intellectuals, it is more of a thought provoking film. AI is increasingly a part of our lives. In most cases, we do not see it, but it is there.
It leaves the viewer asking whether the continued evolution and sophistication of AI is ethically responsible. The Terminator movies left us feeling sad for him more than once. “Ex Machina” is a movie that continues asking how much should we feel towards metal constructs.
Jane Doe writes from the American South East.
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