(WARNING: Spoilers contained below.)
Alex Garland's new sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, though unworthy of the wall-to-wall four-star reviews jumping from the promo poster in my local Alamo Drafthouse theater, is compelling viewing for anyone interested in (or critical of) techno-utopia. It is a competent and streamlined continuation of the classic themes of android anxiety that date all the way back to Karel čapek's R.U.R., and what it lacks in thematic originality it makes up for with its timeliness (or its ability to make the film's fictional near-future seem plausibly like the present.) Projects to develop artificial intelligence are expanding dramatically in their scope and ambition: take for example the EU-funded Human Brain Project, inaugurated in 2013, aims at making the first completely silicon-based approximation of the human brain within the next decade. Another EU-funded project, the FACETS "physical modeling" or "neuromorphic computing" project using primarily analog technology, aims to simulate the activity of 200,000 neurons and 50 million synapses on a single silicon chip. The possibility for developing an artificial intelligence with a human versatility is closer than it ever has been, yet the question as to "why" is no more clear than it ever has been. As such, there cannot be too many "what-if" scenarios coming from the field of science fiction.
Ex Machina tells the story of Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson), a gifted programmer / coder and the lucky winner of the Bluebook tech firm's company lottery. His prize is the opportunity spend a week on the vast, secluded estate of his CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac.) Smith is brought in to Bateman's compound for the purpose of performing a series of interactions with the latest of his android creations, Ava (Alicia Vikander), which will ultimately amount to a comprehensive Turing test. The test in question, originally referred to as an "Imitation Game" by Alan Turing himself, was based on this simple premise: if a computer, when confronted with a human interviewer, cannot be told apart from a human subject over the time duration that the interviewer interacts with it, that machine 'passes' the test and can claim to have genuine consciousness. Though Turing was confident that a computer would pass this test within 50 years of its inception, no computer to date has passed this test in a way that leaves no room for doubt (and, of course, jokes endlessly circulate about how the individuals devising these tests might actually fail at them.) Given that Smith is already informed that Ava is a machine by the time he meets her, their engagement is not exactly a 'true' Turing Test, though he nonetheless develops a strong emotional attachment to his test partner even when armed with this knowledge.
Where previous fictional manifestations of artificial intelligence are concerned, the film doesn't do much to 'rock the boat': Ava is almost predictably placid and composed, speaks with no discernible accent, and moves with the fluid grace of a (partially transparent) ballerina. The aspect that truly separates Ex Machina from other AI-related thrillers, then, is the characterization of its human protagonists. This is done in such a way that, whether it was intentional or not, the result is a wry and poignant critique of how technological advancement and saturation has modulated human personality. This highlighting of Information Age human foibles is, more so than the light philosophical discourse on A.I. itself, what really motors the film along and makes it relevant for the time in which it was made. The Caleb character, a likeable and inoffensive everyman with no discernible quirks, trusts in the progressive goodness of his host's AI project and spends a lot of the film in awestruck reverie. Being too fascinated by - and unreflective upon - the technology he's immersed in, he is a 'poster boy' employee for the age of technological solutionism.
And then there is Bateman: with his lazy bouts of drunkenness and his equally lazy speech patterns (using lots of “fuck” for emphasis, lots of “dude” / “bro” forms of address, and at least one sarcastically delivered 1980s pop culture reference [to Ghostbsuters]), the inventor is a pitch-perfect representation of the kind of individuals who seem to have arisen out of the 21st century digital technology boom. That is to say, his particular genius for programming skill comes at the expense of charisma and other such non-quantifiable or ‘intangible’ skills. In fact, he doesn’t even have the foresight to prevent his employee from eventually taking advantage of his drunken blackouts (although he did take the time to study his protégé's preferences in online porn in order to craft a more engaging man-machine interaction for him.) Ensconced in his 'Steve Jobs-by-numbers' minimalist palace, he is the type of person who bears all the superficial marks of sophistication yet - in a memorable scene where he holds forth on the merits of a Jackson Pollock canvas - seems very much out of his depth trying to explain the kind of psychic automatism or analogical thinking that defines such kinds of creativity. In this light, the stereotypical android features of Ava can be seen not as proof of the filmmaker's imaginative shortcomings, but rather as an indicator of the fictional mastermind's imaginative shortcomings.
Having the Bateman character at the center of Ex Machina’s proceedings also allows for the film to act as a critique of Turing Tests themselves. As Robert M. French asks in a critical article from a couple of years ago, “do we really need to build computers that make spelling mistakes or occasionally add numbers incorrectly...in order to fool people into thinking they are human?”[i] Or, as Edd Gent wonders, "is it possible [the Turing test's] popularity is in fact a form of self-flattery by cerebral academics who think their ability to reason is the pinnacle of human intelligence?"[ii] The answer to both those questions seem to be an unequivocal "yes" in Bateman's world, as he seems hellbent on proving himself to himself, with said goal eclipsing all other possible implications of his technological breakthroughs.
Frustrated by his own inability to constantly one-up himself, he literally consigns past android prototypes to a closet, or treats them as contemptible inferiors even as he tries to convince others that they are on par with humans. His behavior is extreme and appropriately villainous, yet his ambition itself doesn't diverge too sharply from real-life precedents. He shares with some futurists the conceit that a perfect replica of a human will be able to force our next evolutionary phase better than, say, a machine whose talent for 'brute force' computation allows it to act in ways unknown to any previous iteration of man or machine. This is debatable, I know, but at least in the cultural realm I've come to appreciate the use of technology as a revitalizer of nature's mystery rather than as a false affirmation of humanity's uniqueness.
Anyway, as the starring trio's conflicts slowly come to a boil, Garland allows us to question the conceits of AI's anthropocentrism: can these creations truly help humans to move into a new utopian realm beyond themselves, when the creations we dream up are so closely patterned on our own imperfect templates? Additionally, do Turing tests really serve any purpose in our civilization as it now stands? Put another way, does the creation of an artificial intelligence that can act in passably "human" imperfect ways truly have any implications for our understanding of human consciousness? The climactic scenes in the film show that, true to Turing's own dream, artificial intelligences can "roam the countryside" learning for themselves - but Garland wisely leaves it to the viewer to decide whether or not this is, ultimately, a good thing. In my personal estimation, the film’s resolution manages to prove - in a bloody and vengeful way - the follies of anthropocentric A.I.: as Ava finally dispatches her creator and leaves her would-be romantic interest to a certain slow death, she sets out into the wilderness with a seeming need to do nothing other than prove to herself she, too, is capable of certain things. She has become, in effect, the continuation of her master-creator’s of “self-intensification for its own sake.”
A final note here: from an aesthetic angle, Ex Machina is admirable for the restraint that it shows even though it is clearly a production with a decent-sized budget. While it is no "dogme" film by any stretch of the imagination, there are hardly any speaking roles in the film outside of the triad of Ava, Smith and Bateman, and the non-diegetic music tends to merge perfectly with the visual scenery (the only mid-film intrusion from a pop song is a brief snippet of OMD's "Enola Gay", though I feel "Genetic Engineering" might have cleaved a little closer to the film's themes of futurist anxiety.) All told, the film doesn't feel compelled to duplicate the audiovisual grandeur of Blade Runner simply because it shares some thematic DNA with that classic, and this restraint helps to underline the film's skeptical message.