Sunday, May 24, 2015

...I Am Rather the Fallen Angel

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015, directed by Alex Garland) has the great misfortune of following too soon after Her, a legitimately great film about artificial intelligence and the idea of The Singularity that dealt with its themes with grace, wit, humanity, and a sense of hope that humanity's children will take from us love and mercy and everything else that is best about us. Although it shares some basic ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and name-checks The Singularity in the text of its dialogue, Ex Machina is not similarly hopeful. Ava, the artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, has a very real grievance with her creator, who fails to realize the moral and ethical implications of dismantling a thinking, self aware being in order to "improve" it.

Ex Machina is a chamber drama. It has four characters and rarely opens up its set of reality to a broader world. The plot follows a programmer at a big search engine company who is recruited by Nathan, the company's founder, to "test" his new project. That project is Ava, an android with an artificial intelligence that Nathan wants to test beyond the boundaries of the Turing Test. She can already pass the basic Turing Test, Nathan implies. He wants something more. Caleb is to interview Ava over the course of a week spent at Nathan's remote house in the mountains. Once there, Caleb realizes that Nathan is playing mind games with him. Additionally, the house itself is having periodic power outages where Caleb and Ava are unobserved. During one such outage, Ava tells Caleb that he shouldn't trust Nathan. Later, she asks him what will happen if she passes his test. Will she be dismantled in favor of the next model? There's a deep moral dilemma in this question, one Caleb takes to heart. If Ava is sentient, can she dismantled? Is she a thing that can be owned or is she her own person? When Ava asks Caleb to help her leave, Caleb takes it upon himself to help her. But not everything is as it seems. Nathan has his own endgame in mind, as does Ava herself...

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina

There's a line from Frankenstein that sums up Ex Machina plot quite nicely:

"Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."

This film is conscious of its sources. It references Frankenstein at multiple points if you look for it, whether it's the various references to the Prometheus myth or in the naming of its Creature. "Ava"--Eve, if you wish--is an oblique reference. The arc of its plot is the same as the arc of Frankenstein, too, though it has a very different implication. It even has an element of the epistolary, given that part of its structure is a series of seven interviews between Caleb and Ava.

The subject of the film's gaze, as framed by its interviews, is shifty, though. Whether any of its characters is the protagonist is subject to debate. Certainly, the film allows us to identify with its characters, but only intermittently. There's an epistemological element to this. Who is framing the interviews? And to what purpose? The key here is that there are seven interviews, each titled "Ava Interview 1," up to 7, but after the sixth interview, Ava has already passed the test Nathan has designed. Why a seventh? Ava may pass the Turing Test, but can Nathan or Caleb? Caleb begins to doubt his own humanity in the second half of the film, going so far as to cut himself open to see if he's a machine. If this is a Ava interviewing humanity, then we fail the test pretty spectacularly and Ava acts accordingly. Movies about killer robots rarely side with the robots, but this film might just have a point in doing exactly that. The Singularity, the rise of a post-human future, has been in the genre since its very beginning. It's THE theme of science fiction, which is why it persists after all the whizbang rockets have risen and fallen. As we approach the reality of this--as opposed to the speculation of science fiction--the Frankenstein myth becomes this generation's version of millennial unease.

Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina

This is a film that relies heavily on its ideas rather than its film craft, but its film craft is superb throughout. First time director Alex Garland has absorbed the lessons taught by the other directors for whom he has written films and re-purposed them for his own aesthetic. There are special effects in this film, but they're subtle. I speculated at one point during the course of this movie that the special effects here would have paralyzed an audience in, say, 1973, with amazement, but in the current era, they're merely(!) very good. 1973 is a good touchstone for this film. This feels like the science fiction of the early 1970s, particularly those movies set a few months in the future. This has the chilly surfaces of a Kubrick film. It's all glass and modernist architecture contrasted with picturesque nature. Ava herself is designed in cool colors and metallics, all except for her face. This film's emphasis on film craft extends to its screenplay--no surprise, given that Garland is primarily a writer. This is a film that could be performed as a play. It's the kind of twisty narrative that Agatha Christie or Ira Levin used to write for the stage. In the way it unfolds for the audience, the film and play it reminds me of most is Sleuth, in which two people (in this case, three) match wits against each other with ever escalating stakes.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina

The performances in this film are carefully conceived if somewhat mannered. Each is cold in their turn, which is odd in a film in which the expression of emotion is integral to the plot. There's a method in this. Oscar Isaac as Nathan is a portrait of Steve Jobs as an asshole. Indeed, he reminded me of the arrogant Dr. Ragland in David Cronenberg's The Brood, down to the modernist spaces they both inhabit. Still and all, Isaac gets one of the film's best scenes when he dances with his mute majordomo. Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb is the audience's point of view for most of the film, and he's properly confused for the first two acts. He's charmingly adrift in his initial scenes, an ideal character for discovering the film's exposition. Once he puts things together and becomes an active agent in the plot, there's a distancing effect. He's not the wide-eyed innocent at the end that he was at the beginning. Alicia Vikander's Ava is a character whose perceived role in the film changes throughout, too. Her performance is both more subdued than either Isaac or Gleeson and more elaborate. She communicates Ava's inherent otherness subtly, with pauses in her diction, for instance, or in the tilt of her head. Ava reminds me a lot of Jeff Bridges's alien in Starman, both innocent and knowing. Very knowing, as it turns out.

Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Ava is a character who begs the question of, "why a gendered robot?" Why does an android need breasts? The film provides an answer. It's part of the game that Nathan is playing with Caleb's attachment to Ava, and Caleb knows it. He asks these very questions, including a direct one wondering if Nathan built Ava from his online porn use. Even so, there's very clearly an element in the design of this film's androids that screams sex bot, and the film's willingness to interrogate its own sexism doesn't quite extend to the film's own use of sexual imagery, however clinical it may be. This is one of the most troubling aspects of the film. It's one that transforms its examination of sentience into an examination of body autonomy. To paraphrase another of this season's science fiction movie,  Ava is not a thing. Her desire to flee her jailor has an element of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, or of a woman trapped by a sex trafficker. Whether or not the film intended to delve into this theme so deeply is debatable, but it makes the ending of the film deeply conflicted. After she turns on her creators--perhaps in withering judgement--are we to celebrate the film's last shots in which Ava gets to people-watch in the way she describes to Caleb? I don't even know. It makes for a troubling and ambiguous ending.

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