Friday, April 24, 2015

Ex Machina: The perils of playing God

Ex Machina (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, disturbing content, nudity and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.15

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would have loved this film.

Indeed, granted a time machine and access to today's technology, she likely would have made this film.

During one of the rare moments when he feels like showing off, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, left)
allows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) into the lab where all of the "bits" were created, which
eventually came together as a disarmingly personable robot dubbed Ava.
At its core, writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is an absorbing update of Shelley’s Frankenstein: a 21st century cautionary tale about the limits of humanity’s hubris, and the unintended consequences of science outstripping ethics and morality. Midway through the first act, we can’t help recalling the wonderful sentiment that has been paraphrased in so many sci-fi B-movies: “There are things we are not meant to know” (which likely originated, appropriately enough, with a line of dialogue from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein).

Garland’s film is thoughtful, methodical science-fiction: akin to Duncan Jones’ Moon, which made a well-deserved splash back in 2009. Like Moon, Garland’s narrative is an intimate character study that plays out in an isolated, claustrophobic setting. And, as with Moon, Garland’s storyline revolves around a core mystery that becomes increasingly disturbing as we move inexorably toward a chilling third act.

Along the way, we ponder questions relating to existence, consciousness and the nature of one’s soul: the big issues that always arise when contemplating the possibility of creating life. Heady stuff. But although Garland’s film is dialogue-heavy, it’s never boring ... in great part because production designer Mark Digby has crafted a fascinating, yet always persuasively believable setting for these events.

Not to mention the simultaneous creation of an amazing “subject” for what becomes an uncomfortably twisted psychological clash between two men.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an unremarkable programmer employed by a Google-esque Internet search giant dubbed Blue Book (deliberately named after philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1930s-era notes for his class on the philosophy of language). He’s delighted one day to discover that he has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s brilliant, über-wealthy and reclusive founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Nathan lives (mostly) alone in an imposing home/lab built into the remote heart of Alaska: reachable only by helicopter, and isolated from all of civilization’s trappings. Although uneasy from the moment he passes through the compound’s fortified front door, Caleb is too excited to worry about such things; he’s overcome by this opportunity of quality face time with a genius blend of Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

But the dynamic is lopsided, leaving Caleb unbalanced from their initial encounter. Gleeson is spot-on as a dweebish, meek and somewhat shy social misfit who never quite mastered the art of personal interaction, despite his ability to over-rationalize such behavior. Isaac, in contrast, is authoritative and forceful: always working out, signifying Nathan’s obsession with physical as well as mental strength, and as a not-so-subtle means of indicating his need for absolute control.

Isaac literally radiates the arrogance of a brilliant individual who regards other people as no more than a means to his own ends; at the same time, Nathan makes transparently “generous” efforts to ease his guest’s curiosity and anxiety. We aren’t fooled for a moment, although Caleb is: Nathan finds him quite amusing, in a manner that soon feels ... dangerous.

At the same time, Nathan displays the instability of someone who has lived by himself for far too long. His efforts at bonhomie are awkward and forced, as if calculated and insufficiently rehearsed. He also drinks too much, which makes him volatile for entirely different reasons.

Right away, no matter what’s coming, we fear that Caleb is in way over his head.

The reason for Caleb’s visit is revealed quickly. For some indeterminate period of time, squirreled away in the Alaskan wilds while his legend grows, Nathan has been trying to master artificial intelligence (AI). His breakthrough creation is a robot dubbed Ava (Alicia Vikander), which is shaped more or less like a human female.

Her “intelligence” is an amalgam of every individual, throughout the entire world, who has accessed Nathan’s Blue Book search engine; he has hacked all laptops, smart phones, tablets and you-name-it digital devices, in order to stuff Ava’s “brain” with the entire wealth of mankind’s information, behavior and culture.

This has made her incredibly smart and perceptive ... but is she actually sentient?

And that’s the question: Caleb has been brought in to engage Ava in a “Turing Test,” in order to determine whether he’s interacting with AI — a machine — or a “person.” The resulting narrative is chaptered by Caleb’s seven “sessions” with Ava, reflecting his seven-day stay with Nathan.

Ava is a quick study, and she quickly begins to explore incomputable concepts such as gender perception, desire, frustration, anger, mixed agendas ... and trust. Not to mention a healthy dollop of patronizing amusement, which can’t help reminding us of Nathan. To what degree might she have begun to mirror his behavior?

At the same time, Ava exhibits childlike confusion and helplessness; Caleb can’t help feeling sorry for her, particularly since — as an unspecified safety precaution — her “quarters” remain separated from the rest of the compound by ultra-strong, unbreakable glass. Their “interviews” are conducted via hidden microphones and speakers.

At first, Caleb can’t take Ava seriously; his initial questions are analytical and scientific, no doubt reflecting his belief that true AI is unlikely, if not impossible. But as the first few days pass, his smug convictions fade in the face of ... well, Ava’s face: her earnest expressions, not to mention the shy pride she takes in donning clothes like a “real” young woman.

Caleb begins to approach her more from instinct, and soon wonders — here’s a disturbing thought — if she’s doing the same.

Questions, questions. Not to mention motivations. Our suspicions grow, as do Caleb’s. Why is he really here? Why did Nathan shape Ava in the form of a (mostly) attractive young woman? What’s behind the compound’s brief, mysterious power outages that allow Caleb and Ava to talk candidly, knowing that Nathan can’t be monitoring them? Or is this another psychological ruse?

And — the big puzzler — what is Nathan’s endgame?

Vikander is dazzling in her role: wholly convincing as a machine attempting to persuade her new “friend” — and us — that’s she’s actually something more. Vikander is by turns coy, vulnerable or distressed, yet there’s always something not quite “right” about the way she moves, and the inflections of her speech. Her performance is striking, her work deserving placement among the very few actors who’ve been genuinely persuasive as “others” attempting to pass as human. (Jeff Bridges’ title role in 1984’s Starman comes to mind.)

At the same time, the Swedish actress is disarmingly beautiful and disturbingly erotic, particularly given the nature of the “human bits” — face, hands, feet — that are separated by a translucent, mesh-like “skin” that reveals servos, gears and other mechanical bits beneath. It’s impressive work by Digby and visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, because there’s simply no way all of Vikander could “fit” within Ava’s form ... and yet there she is. Quite startling.

Sonoya Mizuno is more subtly unsettling as Kyoko, a live-in cook/maid who handles basic household chores, and whose silent deference toward Nathan is quite disconcerting.

To put it bluntly, everything about this arrangement, this environment, feels awkward and psychologically unstable. It's twisted and unsettling, and Garland knows precisely how to turn the screws.

He has spent a decade and change re-imagining sci-fi and horror clichés, often pushing past our comfort zone. He has worked several times with director Danny Boyle, most aggressively with 2002’s amped-up, way-scary 28 Days Later... More recently, Garland adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s chilling novel for director Mark Romanek’s utterly heartbreaking 2010 adaptation of Never Let Me Go. That film also ponders moral imperatives in a similarly quiet, highly disturbing manner.

Never Let Me Go is frighteningly effective because it feels like a possible future, given the way in which humanity’s ethics dwindle under extreme circumstances. Ex Machina also feels highly likely, because Garland — making an impressive directing debut — sells the premise so believably.

The stuff of nightmares. Things we’re not meant to know.

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