Tuesday, April 28, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Ex Machina

Ex-Machina was written and directed by Alex Garland.

Garland previously wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine (both of which were directed by Danny Boyle) and the underrated Dredd. Ex Machina is his directorial debut.

And what a debut it is! Ex Machina is a slow burning character study that takes its time as it examines the nature of humanity and consciousness and springs its various traps when you least expect it.

Finally, an intelligent and thoughtful sci-fi film. This is the kind of movie the similarly-themed Chappie should have been, but sadly wasn't. Unfortunately it's going to be buried at the box office by the one-two punch of Furious 7 and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Hopefully it'll find a larger audience on home video.

Ex Machina is very similar to 2013's The Machine, another film about a female robot with artificial intelligence. The Machine even featured a character named Ava! Ex Machina is definitely the better film, but that's still a hell of a coincidence.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer working at Bluebook, the most popular online search engine in the world, which absolutely isn't meant to remind us of Google. He wins an in-house contest to spend a week with the company's reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) at his secluded mountain home.

Caleb is flown to Bateman's remote Alaskan complex by helicopter. Caleb's initial meeting with the eccentric genius isn't what he expected, as Nathan is brash, overbearing and a borderline alcoholic, who absolutely isn't meant to remind us of Willy Wonka, Tony Stark and Steve Jobs all rolled into one. Nathan says he's developed a new artificial intelligence, and wants an objective outsider to administer a Turing Test to determine its validity.

Caleb is then introduced to the A.I.— a highly advanced humanoid robot named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander).  Although Ava has a human face, her body is clearly robotic, with transparent sections revealing the machinery and circuitry within. During their initial meeting, Caleb is impressed by Ava's grasp of language and seeming intelligence. She tells Caleb she dreams of someday visiting a large city and people-watching near a busy intersection.

Nathan records all the tests with multiple surveillance cameras. Suddenly the power goes out, and Ava leans forward and says they can now speak in secret, and gravely warns Caleb that Nathan isn't to be trusted. When the power is restored, Ava goes back to normal conversation mode, leaving Caleb puzzled and more than a little terrified.

That night at dinner, Nathan expresses annoyance at the power outages, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Ava is causing them. He drinks too much and becomes angry when his beautiful Japanese servant Kyoko spills wine on the table. Caleb is appalled by the way Nathan treats her.

The next day, Ava puts on a dress, sweater and wig and notes that Caleb is now physically attracted to her. Later Caleb accuses Nathan of programming Ava to be attracted to him in order to skew the Turing Test. Nathan denies this, saying he simply programmed sexuality into her in an effort to make her more human. Caleb also figures out that he wasn't chosen to visit at random, and Nathan admits he's right. He was chosen based on his intelligence and knowledge of A.I.

Caleb and Ava continue to meet and converse. Ava worries what will happen to her if she fails the Turing Test. Later Caleb asks Nathan about this, and he says if she doesn't pass the test, she'll be reformatted— which will in effect kill her.

That night Nathan then gets so drunk he passes out. Caleb steals his key card and accesses his computer. He sees video files of Nathan's previous A.I. models, all of which look like beautiful women, and who all beg to leave the facility. He then enters Nathan's bedroom and finds the deactivated models hanging in his closet. Kyoko appears and reveals she too is an android. Caleb begins to fear he may be an android as well, and slices open his arm with a razor to prove he's human.

During Caleb's final interview with Ava, she cuts the power and they plot their escape. Caleb will get Nathan drunk again, and reprogram the security doors to allow them to leave. Caleb offers Nathan a drink, but he refuses, claiming to be on the wagon. Caleb realizes he's been played by both Nathan and Ava all along. Nathan says the real test was to see if Ava was capable of tricking Caleb into helping her escape, which proves she's "human" and means she's passed the Turing Test.

But Caleb is a sneaky bastard as well, and has already reprogrammed the doors. Ava is then able to escape her sealed room. Nathan tries to stop her, but she attacks him. He hits her with an iron bar, knocking her arm off. Kyoko then stabs Nathan in the back with a large knife. Nathan crushes her head, and Ava takes the knife and stabs him again, killing him.

Ava then goes to Nathan's closet and uses parts from the older prototypes to repair her body and covers herself in synthetic skin and a wig. Now looking fully human, she exits the building, leaving Caleb locked inside Nathan's office with no way out. She's picked up by the waiting helicopter and whisked away.

We then see her standing at a busy intersection, people-watching.

Thoughts:
• Kudos to Alex Garland for setting the movie slightly in the future, but not in any specific year. As readers of my blog are all tired of hearing by now, one of my pet peeves is when a sci-fi movie is full of futuristic technology but set in the far off year of 2018.

• The title is of course derived from "deux ex machina," meaning "god from the machine." And by the way, it's pronounced "MACK-ih-na," not "Masheen-ah."

• Oddly enough, actors Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are both starring in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens film.

• The Turing Test is a real thing, designed to determine a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equal to or indistinguishable from a human. It was invented in 1950 by Alan Turing, the famous mathematician, cryptographer and computer science pioneer.

I freely admit I'm much dumber than Turing, so I don't understand the value of the test. Supposedly you converse with two subjects, one human and one a machine. If you can't tell which is which, then the machine passes and is considered intelligent.

But how can you ever know if a machine is actually thinking, or just simulating thought and saying what you want to hear? Is simulated thinking the same as real thought?

• The Ava effects are absolutely brilliant, and look completely real. There are tons of details visible inside her transparent body, including flashing lights and slowly whirring gears and fans.

Supposedly no green screen was used, as her human parts were painstakingly rotoscoped out and replaced with robotic versions. Complicating matters were the reflections she cast in the numerous glass walls, which also had to be "roboticized."

The effects are even more amazing when you consider the budget for the entire film was a scant $16 million! Heck, most films spend more than that on their craft service these days!

• I don't get why Nathan came up with the "win a week at his complex" contest ruse. Why go through all the publicity-generating pretense of a contest? Why not just discreetly invite Caleb for a visit?

• Is Nathan the only person inhabiting his complex? It sure seems that way (well, until Caleb arrives of course). If so, he really is quite the genius. He's not only a brilliant computer programmer, but also a talented engineer and gifted roboticist as well, somehow constructing a life-like humanoid robot all by himself.

Realistically there should have been a team of hundreds working on such a project. I guess they were going for a Dr. Frankenstein, mad scientist kind of vibe here, that wouldn't have been possible unless Nathan was the only one involved.

• Apparently Nathan's never heard of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics. You know, the ones that say "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm," etc and so on. He'd have avoided a whole lot of trouble (and would still be alive) if he'd built those into his bots.

You'd also think someone as smart as him would have built some kind of kill switch into Ava, to prevent her from leaving the complex (or even her room, for that matter).

• There's a lot of full frontal female nudity on display here, which is something you don't see a lot in movies these days. I wonder... did the studio consider the nudity acceptable because none of the women in the film are real? Robot nudity is OK, real nudity not so much?

• I'm very impressed that Nathan's complex doesn't blow up at the end of the film, which is how 99.9% of most sci-fi films end.

• At the end of the film, Ava walks into the landing field, boards the waiting helicopter and flies away to her new life. Shouldn't the pilot have questioned her? Wouldn't he have been expecting Caleb, not some woman he's never seen before? Shouldn't he have tried to check in with Nathan to make sure everything was kosher? I half expected her to kill the pilot and fly the copter herself. Maybe she used her manipulative female ways on him to allay his suspicions.

Ex Machina is a rarity at the theater these days— a simple, thoughtful and intelligent sci-fi film that demands your attention and actually makes you think. I'm hoping against hope it'll do well, so we'll see more films like it. I give it an A-.

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