Review: Ex Machina (2015)

While televised science fiction content withered in US, UK seems to have made a serious headway in tackling the short story format, providing us with some near-future insightful stories on the subject of humanity as impacted by changing technologies.

Black Mirror, for example, a two-year series with a few, well-chosen story lines, provided us with some wonderful, visually-stunning and mildly antiseptic view of the genius-bar futures. Our relationships, our humanity, the use and distribution of our memories, and of course, in an eternal Asimov tradition, the question of androids in our civilisation.

These smart questions, it seems, we lack in an era mired in real questions surrounding our behaviour and technology. For example, I keep on wondering why we don’t discuss personal privacy with more bold brushstrokes, yet the population is overwhelmed, hoping that all will turn out for the better, while media seems to lack any appetite for serious discussions of freedoms, human nature, and our social evolution as intersected with these relatively new, unregulated technologies…but I digress, yet again.

The enigmatic thing about Black Mirror series is its appearance and setting. Not unlike Never Let Me Go, the film that touched me to the core, Black Mirror sets its episodes in relatively near future, as if just around the corner, undefined by actual year and era. Unlike Never Let Me Go, it is not a future in which humanity chooses its preferred period, but instead have a direct connection to our contemporary society. The differences between us and them, it seems, are hardly noticeable, apart from a snazzy widget or two.

This is one of the captivating aspects of Alex Garland‘s stab at the genre, with a remarkably innovative, subtle and emotive Ex Machina.

Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina, a film about Domhnall Gleeson, whose familiar face (incidentally the very same featured prominently in Black Mirror) depicts Caleb, a talented software engineer/boy genius, who wins a prize.

The prize, reminiscent of the Apple cultishness, is winning a few days with the Steve Jobs of the company, Nathan. The CEO, masterfully played by Oscar Isaac, has a secret, an sophisticated AI that requires testing, and Caleb has been hand-picked for the monumental task of deciding on the level of sophistication for the AI.

The win leads Caleb to a remote location where he meets Nathan’s new project. A glass house set above a waterfall whose architecture fits snugly between a billionaire’s dream hiding place and a villain’s lair (Is there a difference between the two, I wonder?) is a security haven, in which Caleb encounters a perfect creation, Ava, depicted by wonderfully tender Alicia Vikander.

Before you know it, you’re entranced in a triangle of competing objectives, suspicions, and manipulative actions that lead all the residents, human and otherwise, toward a certain demise.

Amongst these machinations, the eternal question is examined: what makes for a human, and how do we define the rights of someone who has the capacity to feel, intelligence to understand, and has a semblance of self-awareness? Measuring and evaluating these becomes an impossibility for Caleb who eventually uncovers a horrific truth, but also confronts his mounting attraction and fondness for Ava. Amidst all that is Nathan who is brilliant, obnoxious, manipulative and cruel, and whose actions make you wonder whether the world should know what kind of activities the sociopaths amongst us, wealthy or otherwise, engage in on daily basis.

Garland’s Ex Machina is beautiful, exploring relatively big themes with an indie lens, paying attention to the emotional depth of its protagonists, carefully exploring their desires, motivations, what they’re able to sacrifice in order to win.

I must warn you, Ex Machina has a sad, melancholic notes, and a mildly horrific ending. There is no doubt that there is no justice dispensed to participants, and as such does not give us moral resolutions. Yet, it does represent a story of survival, even selfishness, and examinations of the relatively unexamined motives. In other words, don’t expect an episode of The Next Generation, with captain’s voice resolving the great, moral questions faced by the protagonists, steering you in the right direction, but rather a story of questionable motives, questionable actions, and ultimately a messy, human approach to a resolution, whether deliberated on by intelligent machines or people.