More human than human4/29/2015
“Ex Machina” is a terrifying film. It does not get its sense of foreboding from jump scares or gore. There are no demons or ghosts or anything else traditionally scary anywhere to be found. Instead, “Ex Machina,” the directoral debut of screenwriter Alex Garland, is terrifying for two reasons: 1) If humans ever create a true artificial intelligence, the very definition of how scientists work means that it is very likely that AI will hate us, and 2) everything that goes into creating the AI-driven Ava in the film is 100 percent possible right now.
“Ex Machina” centers around four characters: Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a young, earnest coder for an information monolith called Bluebook — a fictional mash-up of Google, Facebook and Wolfram-Alpha; Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Bluebook’s reclusive, possibly quite mad, billionaire owner who invites Caleb out to his secluded estate to see his newest project; Ava (Alicia Vikander), the project in question, a robotic AI that Nathan has brought Caleb in to test; and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s unspeaking house servant.
As the film starts, we see Caleb win a company-wide contest for a Bluebook employee to spend a week with the company’s enigmatic founder. After being taken by helicopter to Nathan’s vast, isolated estate, Caleb learns that there is more to the trip than just a week’s vacation. After signing a non-disclosure, Nathan offers Caleb a chance to take part in Nathan’s quest to build the world’s first true artificial intelligence. The AI is completed, Nathan explains, and now he needs a bright mind to conduct a series of interviews to see if the machine can pass for human: a Turing Test.
Through a series of face-to-face interviews, Caleb comes to care for Ava and begins to resent Nathan for keeping Ava locked in a glass-walled room/prison. Between the interviews, Caleb and Nathan engage in conversations that look into the nature of what it means to be alive, how intelligence affects perception and the differences between true sentient interaction and simple clever programming.
The latter point is where “Ex Machina” starts to bump up against real life in unsettling ways. At one point, Nathan and Caleb discuss how Ava’s intelligence was created. Caleb assumes Nathan used Bluebook’s search engine records, which he did. But Nathan explains how that was not enough. To be able to truly pass for human, Ava needed to understand not just how humans think, but how they react to and convey their thoughts. To do so, Nathan mined data from every cell phone on the planet and gave Ava an unlimited stream of genuine human conversations, facial reactions and verbal cues to process. It is a process that we, living in a post-Snowden world, already know to be possible. Government agencies like the NSA are listening to our conversations daily, and we voluntarily plug gigabytes of personal information into Google on a daily basis. All of that adds up to make the underlying premise of “Ex Machina” less science fiction and more “that thing that nobody has done in this exact way yet.”
It is this rocky core of truth and genuine possibility around which Garland wraps his story. The result is gripping, intelligent and gorgeous. The film has a clean, sleek aesthetic, and the visual effects surrounding Ava are marvelous to behold. “Ex Machina” is not the kind of film you go see then forget about the next day; it is meant to be chewed over with friends, debated and viewed again. The “new AI” premise has been covered before, just never this well. CV