The Human Component (Film Review: “Ex Machina”)

A provocative glance into the outer realms of Artificial Intelligence tests the imagination while blurring the line between Humanity and Hardware in the smart, sexy thriller Ex Machina.

SnapShot Plot

This Oscar-winning science fiction film begins innocuously enough as Caleb Smith, a nerdy programmer at a huge Google-type search engine company called BlueBook, receives the news that he’s won a competition to spend a week at the residential estate of the elusive founder and CEO, Nathan Bateman. From that point on, all bets are off as Caleb finds himself at the center of an elaborate experiment called the Turing Test, in which he is to serve as the Human Component to assess the self-awareness and consciousness of Bateman’s master creation, a beautiful and sexualized AI robot named Ava. As Caleb and Ava bond through a series of one-on-one conversations, all the while being observed and monitored by the volatile Nathan, an elaborate game of intellectual and meta-physical chess becomes a true game of cat and mouse, with increasingly dire consequences in the balance.

Irish actor, Domhnall Gleeson (also in this year’s The Revenant) is just the right mix of pallid geek and sexual newbie to sell Caleb as an awe-struck fan of Nathan’s, as well as a romantic confidante to Ava. This guy understands the zenith technology at the ‘heart’ of Ava’s circuitry, yet he truly wants to believe she’s the embodiment of the perfect woman he’s dreamed of his entire life. Nathan is deliciously and dangerously portrayed by Oscar Isaac (Inside LLewyn Davis; Two Faces of January) as a cross between a zillionaire recluse Howard Hughes-type and a Dr. Frankenstein with a massive God complex. He charms and bullies Caleb in a deliberate guy’s guy, macho, party animal persona, all the while hammering him with scientific & philosophical theorems, explanations and challenges to support his grand experiment. The writing in these scenes is splendid.

At the absolute center of the movie is the AI robot, Ava. This is the year for Swedish beauty and rising star, Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair; The Danish Girl, for which she’s picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.) Here she displays a wonderfully calibrated performance as a being who, for all appearances, is Human although we know of course she is not. And that knowing – on our part – makes any attempt to be less than Human (in her performance) something garish and ‘robotic’ (for lack of a better word.) So instead, Vikander had to find a way to be as physically and emotional real as possible, with just the slightest hint of the ‘manufactured’, which she does beautifully and simply. So the question becomes, Does Ava pass the Turing Test and what does that mean for her, for Caleb, Nathan and the world? Which of course begs the deeper question, Even if Man has the power to distill the essence of humanness in technology, does that mean he has the right to? How God-like can or should Man ever become?


 “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”


Parting Shot

Ex Machina is the impressive directorial debut by screenwriter and novelist, Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later and Dredd. Rightly nominated for two Academy Awards in the categories of Visual Effects and Original Screenplay, Ex Machina is the best sort of science fiction movie (to my mind): a smart film that asks more questions than it answers. It’s low on violence and high on concepts. But the relationship triangle at its center really grounds the plot, making the suspense which is inherent in the action, all the more palpable.

The title alone, Ex Machina is food for thought, referring of course to the theatrical conceit known as Deus ex Machina, literally translated as ‘God from the machine’ in which an improbable character or event would seemingly descend from above to save the hero or situation at the end. Sort of a cosmic precursor to ‘jumping the shark?’ In any case, undoubtedly some people will find the ending perplexing, even infuriating, but my takeaway was more a reaction to the universal implications of the experiment itself, the tragic fallout, and the age-old adage that it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.

For more insight into the Turing Test itself, and what Alan Turing intended it to represent in 1950 and how it’s been exaggerated in the popular imagination, here’s an interesting, short article from Business Insider/TechInsider:


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