Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Ex Machina" brings Frankenstein to the Modern Day

Years ago, I reviewed Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, and said that while I could not honestly say anything about the quality of the movie other than how excellently-made it was, I could not recommend it. Despite how wonderful a storyteller Spielberg is, I believed he was asking his audience to do something that I found to not only be impossible, but also immoral - to presume that Man can artificially replicate human emotion. In my review of that film, I explained how I firmly believe that, despite the scientific wonders of which Mankind is capable, there are some things that are beyond science, things such love and pain. I always find myself hindered when watching any story about “robots” interacting with humans, as it seems to me that almost without fail, the story is asking me to feel some sort of sympathy for the robot/artificial construct in question, and I can’t feel sympathy for such a construct any more than I could feel sympathy for a toaster, or a hedge trimmer, or my cell phone. No matter what task or action it performs, or how it seems to display some human reaction, nothing will change the fact that IT IS NOT REAL.

Thus, the dilemma I faced when watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina recently ("Ex Machina" being derived from the old literary device "Deux ex Machina," literally "God from the Machine," meaning some unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation). We, the audience, are represented by young Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lower- to mid-level programmer at a mammoth search engine company (called “BlueBook,” but who are we kidding? It’s Google) who is selected, seemingly at random, to visit the mountain retreat/estate/laboratory of the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs) for a week. While there, he is to administer a Turing Test to an artificial intelligence construct Nathan has created, a female-shaped robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

What’s a “Turing Test,” you ask? It’s a scenario in which a computer or some other construct interacts with a human to a degree that the human is unable to determine that the computer is not human. Nathan is so firm in the belief that he has created what amounts to a new life form that he even tells Caleb straight up that Ava is artificial, confident that even with that knowledge, Caleb will come to accept her as indistinguishable from human. 

Nathan is portrayed as an almost total megalomaniac, freely admitting using his Google-like search engine database illegally as raw data for constructing his artificial intelligence. As if his desire to “become God” (his words) wasn’t evidence enough, his regaling Caleb with the young man’s fantasy of a bachelor pad stocked with alcohol, unlimited WiFi, a weight room and a silent, leggy Asian servant girl should seal the deal for you. He lectures Caleb on how his creation is not only wonderful, but is the next logical step in evolution, explaining how attraction and sexuality can be reduced to mere ones and zeros and programmed into a construct, resulting in reactions indistinguishable from “natural.” 

Garland’s clever screenplay is essentially a three-character stage play, with the majority of the film taking place in one location with the three speaking characters (and a non-speaking one). Over the course of the week Caleb is present, Nathan passive-aggressively steers Caleb into developing an emotional connection to Ava (well, perhaps not even all that passively). He watches the interview sessions between Caleb and Ava via video monitors, sessions during which, strangely, Caleb is the one sealed in a locked enclosure, not Ava. We already know Nathan is playing Caleb and Ava off one another, attempting to engender sympathy in each for the other, but during almost regular power outages, Ava begins trying to get Caleb to aid her in escaping her creator. Garland keeps us wondering whether it is Nathan playing Caleb off Ava, or if it’s Ava playing him off Nathan, or if both possibilities are true. 

I say that Caleb is the only sympathetic character in this movie, but perhaps I should be more specific and say that he is the only HUMAN character for whom to feel sympathy. The vibe of the scenes between Caleb and Ava are obviously to evoke feeling for the robotic construct, such that Caleb will deceive Nathan and help the machine “escape,” but I again remind the reader that I can’t fall for that trap. If anything, I found myself amazed at how someone as supposedly intelligent as Caleb, someone specifically trained in computer science and the application/manipulation of data, could so quickly fall in “love” with something showing its wires. While I imagine his fate at the end of the film was supposed to engender a different reaction from me, I couldn’t help but feel that the dum-dum sorta asked for it.

Alex Garland has written some very good science fiction movies, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, just to name a couple, and I reiterate that this screenplay makes for a fascinating, engrossing story. This movie being his directing debut, he shows some skill in guiding the three actors playing the lead roles, as they are all wonderful in conveying innocence, insanity and awareness, respectively.  

Oh, there are discussions galore to be had about the subtexts and undertones in this film - Nathan’s God-complex, the sexism in his conscious decision to make all of his constructs in the female form and have them serve him, Ava’s ultimate fate and the coming of the Technological Singularity, etc. I won’t delve into those, however, in an effort to keep this essay a reasonable length. I will say that I honestly don’t know if my inability to enjoy this movie will make me the exception or the rule. I can see how some may find it thoroughly enjoyable. I imagine lots of people, Sci-Fi fans and not-so-much fans, will find Ex Machina something to generate lots of deep thought afterwards. 

However, my intellect and my Faith prevent me from following stories such as this one to the emotional places I believe their tellers wish me to go. This may very well just be some personality flaw that only affects me and prevents me from enjoying such entertainment, and perhaps might not affect any other viewer at all. As Popeye so famously said, however, “I yam what I yam,” so I cannot in good conscience proclaim Ex Machina to be an enjoyable film. A well-made one, without question, and one that can I can admire, but not enjoy.