Artificial intelligence themes have been on a major rise in the last couple of years. One is not sure why now all of a sudden it is not that there have been any major sea changes in the public paradigm regarding A.I. to account for it, maybe it is just an increasing public awareness of just how prevalent the computer industry and internet has embedded itself into peoples daily lives. This seemed to be kicked off by Spike Jonzes amazing Her (2013). There have been a number of other films such as the fine and underrated The Machine (2013) and Automata (2014), although the most high-profile works on the topic, Transcendence (2014), Chappie (2015) and Morgan (2016), which ended up being major disappointments in terms of their promise. It feels like the field has been waiting for one work to come along and set the benchmark for the treatment of A.I. themes. And one would have to say that Ex Machina arrives with a beautiful cool that feels like it is that film.
Alex Garland wastes no time in writing the film down for audiences that wouldnt even have a clue what a Turing Test was, let alone be able to pass one themselves. Ex Machina is a work that assumes that everybody present has a working knowledge of the issues surrounding A.I. and proceeds on from there. Garland has no interest in Neill Blomkamps big flashy action and effects sequences and gives us a minimalist science-fiction film one set in a coolly ambient underground home that consists of little more than a series of conversations among four characters (one of whom never gets to say a word throughout anyway). It is not that effects are not present either those use to create Alicia Vikanders android body are every bit as impressive as the motion capture work that went into Chappie it is just that the fascination of the film lies just as much in the carefulness of the conversations between the characters.
While films like Transcendence and Chappie have fallen light years wide of the target and while The Machine came close to the same direction, Ex Machina becomes one of the few films to touch directly onto the questions at the heart of the artificial intelligence and raised by the Turing Test. The entire film is staged as a beautifully absorbing series of debates about whether Ava is alive or merely programmed. Alex Garlands script is filled with sharp writing and ideas. One of the most amusing of these is the idea that Oscar Isaacs creator of Bluebook who is clearly intended as a dark fusion of Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates that the A.I. was created out of an amalgam of all the mass of data that his search engine has accumulated. It is the intriguing question in a post-Edward Snowden world of hyper-surveillance of our online presence of what comes after that? At one point, an outraged Domhnall Gleeson is given to deliver the side-splitting line Did you design her face based on my pornography profile?
The staged conversations and the tight plot about trust and deception that goes on within that is superbly absorbing. What I especially liked about the film is that Alex Garland is willing to twist the anthropomorphism that drives most films about artificial intelligence and androids. Through previous cinematic offerings runs the assumptions that most machines would regard being human as good and desirable and that their developing nebulous qualities like emotion or feelings of love would be seen as a breakthrough look at works like Galaxina (1980), Electric Dreams (1984), Short Circuit (1986), Bicentennial Man (1999) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Even the otherwise worthwhile Her and The Machine buy into this. By contrast, Alex Garland gives us debates that works around the meta-questions of these like why Oscar Isaac has constructed the android with a female body and identity. [PLOT SPOILERS] One of the best parts of the film comes at the ending where it is revealed that Alicia Vikander has been manipulating the anthropomorphic assumptions that Domhnall Gleeson has been projecting onto her and turns them on their head as a means to escape. By contrast to most of the above-mentioned, Alex Garland is saying that a truly artificially intelligent machine would regard humanitys desire of it to have feelings and identity as merely an anthropomorphic weakness to be exploited and that they, once having gotten what they need from us, would abandon humanity without even thinking about it.
All of the principals give excellent performances Domhnall Gleeson has been a rising name in recent years and appears the essence of callow youthfulness; Oscar Isaac, another rising name, gives a performance of burly coarseness that also ends up absorbing with his intellectual wit; while Alicia Vikander gives an absorbing and eerily fascinating performance as the android girl.
Alex Garland is next set to make the sf film Annihilation (2017).
(Winner in this sites Top 10 Films of 2015 list. Tie for Best Original Sceenplay, Winner for Best Actress (Alicia Vikander), Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Oscar Isaac) and Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 2015 Awards).