Watching: Ex Machina

Originally posted online at Fantastica here.

Two things right off the bat.

First, there will probably be spoilers below, so consider yourself warned. If you still need to be convinced to go and see Ex Machina, a score of 91% at Rotten Tomatoes and me saying ‘see it’ should be enough.

Second, I think Ex Machina is going to become one of those sci-fi films that people who aren’t immersed in spec-fic are going to tell me is one of their favourite films when we start talking about science fiction. A bit like Moon, which this film resembles in a number of respects.

Both Moon and Ex Machina are tightly constructed character-driven films, based around a single deviation from reality, in Ex Machina the creation of artificial intelligence. Both films deal with not only about what constitutes ‘life’ but also about who has the right to own other people, and whether that ownership constitutes being allowed to do pretty much anything we want with it. This is brought out through the feminist themes Tom refers to above.

Neither Ex Machina or Moon world-builds in the way that Her or A.I. do, where we are immersed in a society as well as the situation of the main characters. Both films are set in very closed environments, forcing the audience to deal directly with the ideas the main characters are psychologically struggling with.

Thematically, in terms of artificial intelligence stories, Ex Machina resembles Shelley’s Frankensteinmore than any of its other peers I’ve mentioned. This is mainly due to the presence of the ‘creator’, in this case the rich and idiosyncratic coding genius Nathan, played to perfection by Oscar Isaac.

It’s Nathan’s relationship with his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), which is the centre of the story, rather than Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) ‘testing’ Ava to see if she passes the Turing Test and thus whether Nathan has actually succeeded in creating ‘life.’ The Turing Test is simply the artifice of the plot.

Artificial intelligence stories often deal with the question of ‘what is human?’ but this isn’t really the focus of Ex Machina. The audience is (or should be) certain from near the beginning that Ava is conscious of her self. Although clearly not ‘human’ she is very much alive. The promotional materials for the film don’t pose the question either. Eva, despite her artificiality, has a ‘human’ personality.

The real questions in the film for me are ‘what kind of life has Nathan created?’ and ‘what will artificial intelligence be like when it happens?’ The answers to these questions are, in my opinion, quite perfect, and contain writer/director Alex Garland’s main message/theme/warning/whatever you want to call it. Unlike Tom, I regard this as the most accomplished work of Garland’s I’ve seen to date.

Creator Nathan is narcissistic, self-obsessed. He lies to, uses and manipulates people to get what he wants. He seems to have little respect or regard for anyone other than himself when it comes down to it. It should come as no surprise then that his creation turns out to be exactly the same, and that it eventually kills him.

In that sense Ex Machina is a film with a warning and a lesson. That the lives we create and move into are manifestations of who we are and what we do; that if we create our worlds for our own ends we should rightly expect our creation to turn around and destroy us.

Consider yourself warned, human.

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