“Ex Machina” is a film of moral ambiguity. Characters act in flawed but largely rational ways and the audience is left to decide if they are good, evil, justified, unjustified, or moral. At one point in the film, Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligent android, asked Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer, if he is a good person. He never thinks to ask her the same question back.
The plot involves Caleb, who works as a computer programmer at a company called Bluebook, which is essentially a stand-in for Google in this film, one which can claim to be a Wittgenstein reference for the more literate audience members, though. At the start of the film, he wins a company-wide lottery to spend a week at the remote mansion of the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs). The mansion, which can seemingly only be reached via helicopter, is a vast underground technological research facility, as Caleb soon finds out. While there, upon signing a non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals the purpose of Caleb being there: Caleb is to perform an augmented Turing Test on Ava. The Turing Test is one in which an examiner asks questions of a person and a computer and attempts to ascertain which is the human and which is the computer. If the computer can successfully trick the examiner and demonstrate human-ness, the computer is said to have passed. Here, the test is changed, as Caleb knows from the word-go that Ava is an android. The challenge, then, is to see if even WITH that knowledge, it can truly be ascertained that Ava is artificially intelligent and not just seemingly intelligent.
Aside from a few other minor characters, including the non-English-speaking Asian servant of Nathan (Sonoya Mizuno), these three characters represent the entire cast of the film. Caleb is intelligent, nervous, nerdy, and from what we observe and learn is pretty much our general perception of a geeky computer programmer, but ultimately a good, moral, upstanding guy. Nathan is brilliant, but also an alcoholic, prone to quick bursts of anger, and perhaps not the most ethical of scientists. Ava is…well, multi-layered, and the extent to her intelligence, morality, and pragmatism is one of the things which the film asks you, as an audience member, to pontificate on. We’ve all seen films with a child-like A.I., but in a film which is imbued with a sense of constant deception and questioning of motivations, we can never be sure what Ava truly wants, or feels. Even at the end, when we have some answers, we’re still left wondering whether we can call her good, or bad, or her actions justified, or not.
The film is executed extremely well. It unfolds in a manner which creates the exact right cocktail of emotions: curiosity, wonder, uneasiness, paranoia, confusion, and even anger. When you consider the stage-like contours of this film (four actors and a set) it’s sort of amazing that so many ideas are packed into such a simple package. It helps when you have three actors who each do a superb job in their roles. Each character could have come across as one-note with lesser actors, but in this cast’s hands we see the layers underneath the dialogue and can almost hear even the unsaid words.
We’ve had plenty of films about A.I., and a number have come out recently, including “Her”, “Transcendence”, and this week’s “Avengers” sequel. “Her” largely tackled questions about how human beings will relate to A.I., but “Ex Machina” is more concerned with how A.I. will potentially feel about us. In a legal sense, an artificially intelligent being would likely be considered property, and one can imagine a future world where A.I. have to fight for personhood. In a moral sense, however, do we have to consider artificial life forms as more than their programming? I remember an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Data (Brent Spiner) was on trial for his personhood. While a film like Spielberg’s “A.I.” tried to tackle this issue, that film (while I like it) failed because the “love” that David (Haley Joel Osment) feels in that film is solely due to an activated program, and not out of a genuine series of events and stimuli which leads to an innate emotional response. In “Ex Machina”, Ava’s feelings are her own.
It’s hard to discuss more without going into spoilers, but I will say a little bit more. *MILD SPOILERS*
Whether Nathan’s actions are justified or cruel toward Ava will depend on if you attach personhood to Ava. If you do not, than Nathan isn’t guilty of much more than advancing science he doesn’t actually want to advance because, well, someone’s going to do it. He is also perhaps guilty of sexual perversity and maybe rape (though not of Ava). Toward Caleb, Nathan has certainly broken some privacy laws and been kind of a dick, but whether he’s guilty of more, one cannot say. Caleb seems largely blameless for his actions given a healthy moral compass.
As for Ava, well, her actions towards Nathan are equal parts revenge and self-preservation, and one can’t quite fault her for that. Her actions toward Caleb…well, I for one have ethical problems with them, but pragmatically understand her actions. Can she trust Caleb to let her be free? Will she ever truly be free if even one person knows her secret? Should any man have that much power over a woman? If you view Ava as a machine and only that, chances are you will find her evil and cruel. If you view her as a slave, or an unjustly imprisoned victim, you will understand but, like me, still have issues with the fate she thrusts upon Caleb. Whether Ava as a character represents feminist empowerment or misogynist fears of women’s natures, I can’t quite decide.
“Ex Machina” was written and directed by Alex Garland, who is a novelist and screenwriter whose previous work includes writing “28 Days Later” and “Dredd”. He tends to wade in to pools of intelligent science fiction in the way Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”, “In Time”) does, though sometimes he forgoes intelligence for action. Here, he is directing for the first time and has made a very smart film that may cover well worn science fiction ground, but explores corners or moral and ethical grounds that few films do. Most films we see have characters that are either good, or bad, or start good and become bad, or start bad and become good. Few films truly have characters that exist in a grey where how you feel about them as people may simple depend on which angle you approach them from. I enjoy moral ambiguity, and I enjoy intelligent sci-fi that isn’t just about spaceships blowing up and actually wants to tackle ideas.
While “Ex Machina” isn’t perfect (I would have liked more scenes with Ava herself, as well as perhaps a better exploration of Nathan’s motives) it is a well made, extremely well-acted, intelligent sci-fi film engaging in ethical quandaries, and I highly enjoyed it. B+