On the Silver Screen – Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores the concepts of life, consciousness and what it means to be human through a version of the Turing Test.
The Turing Test is defined as a method to “challenge a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence comparable to, or indistinguishable from, a human.” This test forms the core of Ex Machina as Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to be the human component of the test to try and determine if the Artificial Intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander) is truly alive.
Ava’s creator is a very eccentric billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who lives alone in a secluded research facility. Isaac is great as this character seeming friendly and outgoing at first but clearly hiding a sinister agenda. Everything about him seems a little too good to be true in a way that almost reminds me of a Willie Wonka type character. Despite how questionably he often acts Isaac always keeps him likeable and there’s no doubt how much of a genius he is.
I liked the subtle touches that were applied to his character like his obsessive nature when it comes to things like exercising or drinking. There’s also a real sense that his solitude has transformed his compulsive personality into a kind of insanity. He projects the appearance of a man who is being crushed under the weight of his genius with no human outlet to keep him grounded. It makes sense that he would believe his own hype as he has nothing to humble him. Oscar Isaac plays all of these aspects expertly and creates a character who is always fascinating to watch.
Caleb is sort of his opposite. He’s very shy and unsure of himself which causes him to doubt his true ability. At the start of the story he has to constantly be reminded to act naturally around Nathan. It becomes clear that he’s a very intelligent man who has an abstract way of thinking once he becomes comfortable enough to speak his mind. His character arc is an interesting one as he becomes more paranoid through his experiences of talking to Ava as well as the increasingly sinister conversations with Nathan. Gleeson does a great job of giving his character the required layers and convincingly delivers the intelligent dialogue convincingly.
Alicia Vikander’s Ava is Nathan’s creation and the subject of the film. Vikander’s performance is excellent as she gives the character the right amount of humanity to encourage the audience to sympathise with her. Ava’s soft spoken nature and childlike innocence makes her seem like a very vulnerable presence. There’s something eerie about the character in how human she acts with the contrast of her mechanical parts constantly on display to remind us that she’s not human. Ava doesn’t stay still for long when talking to Caleb adding a sense of grace and fluidity to the character emphasising her human qualities that again contrast with the subtle sound of her mechanisms working to make these movements possible. It’s easy to forget that she’s actually a human playing a machine through a combination of Vikander’s performance and some excellent visual effects work.
Much of the film follows a very scientific approach in terms of structure. Caleb has several “Sessions” with Ava to evaluate her responses and determine if she is self aware or merely simulating it. These conversations are fascinating in the way that they develop from innocent and playful to intensely philosophical. I love how loaded with subtext they are and how much they engage the viewer to question what’s really going on here. The film never gives a definitive answer on the overarching question opting instead to leave it to the viewer to decide for themselves. There are some instances where we see Ava acting in a way that seems utterly convincing then the audience is reminded that her humanlike responses could simply be very sophisticated programming which means that by the end of the film it is still possible that she is only following it.
Beyond these “Sessions” are conversations between Nathan and Caleb who deconstruct what was said. These conversations are equally as fascinating and similarly loaded with subtext. Through these discussions we find out that Nathan is testing far more than how his creation fares against Alan Turing’s famous test but his true intentions remain just below the surface. There’s something unsettling about how everything is one big test for him and how dehumanised everything around him is.
In a lot of ways the film takes on the form of a psychological thriller in the way it explores the mysterious agendas at play. The sterile underground research facility creates the perfect claustrophobic and foreboding atmosphere that just feels more uncomfortable the longer that is spent there.
Much of the film is very dialogue heavy which may not to be to everyone’s taste as much of the narrative rests on what people learn through what is said to them. I didn’t find the long dialogue scenes to be a drag at all since the discussions were so engaging as well as keeping the plot moving forward. I really liked the theoretical exploration of consciousness and life through questioning things that are normally taken for granted. This is definitely one to make you think.
At times the pacing of the film could feel a little slow. There were some moments that seemed to drag on for longer than they should have. Thankfully these moments are really infrequent and the film mostly moves along at a decent clip with enough breathing space allowed to consider the issues presented.
An engaging and thoughtful sci fi thriller with a tightly constructed intelligent script with fascinating characters.
The 3 leads are great at portraying their characters with layers of depth and subtext to their actions and words. There are no weak links among the talented cast who all radiate intensity at varying degrees.
Much of the film is structured around a scientific exploration of the issue of Artifical Intelligence. This lends itself to many fascinating discussions that challenge many assumptions about the nature of consciousness and life as we know it. I found it a joy to watch these issues explored over the course of many extended discussions on the subject.
In some cases the pacing of the film feels a little off but these moments are rare and in general the film moves along nicely while remaining engaging throughout.