The robots are coming.
Well actually, the robots are already here, and if Honda has anything to do with it, they’ll be doing our washing, driving us places and probably brushing our teeth in the near future. However, that day has not yet come, so we are left only to imagine what life could be like living side by side with artificial intelligence. Enter Ex Machina; a 2015 film that shines an odd light on our ability as humans to empathise with the machines we create.
There is very little that is artificial about this film (except the robots themselves, obviously), but sometimes the intelligence can pass you by. In the first few scenes we’re introduced to Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson (of Black Mirror and About Time fame); a coding whizz in a tech company who wins a chance to meet the elusive head of the company, Nathan (played by the multi-talented Oscar Isaac). He lives in an amazing house in the middle of far reaching green landscapes and mountains, and dons a hipster beard and shaved head to be, I assume, more relatable to the young people? Who knows, but he looks cool and weird.
The tension between Nathan and Caleb is palpable from the outset – Nathan wants Caleb to test and sign off the “humanity” of his new robot, and Caleb wants to know how Nathan has even achieved what he has. Their interactions are testosterone-fuelled and passive aggressive – at least as much as they can be on a kind of scientist to scientist level (I think of it as the intellectual equivalent of men in lab coats slap-fighting – or two posh British gentlemen attempting to brawl in suits).
This is all merely a prequel for introducing Ava; the emotionally complex, walking and freely talking machine played by Alicia Vikander (a Swedish-born actress quickly adding numerous accolades to her Hollywood portfolio). Alicia’s performance as Ava is exemplary in my opinion, and she is by far the smartest thing in this film. However, she didn’t get half as much screen time as I had expected, which perhaps was supposed to play into the mystery of her character. This is further alluded to by the interactions between the two men vying for her attention in varying ways.
Ironically, or again perhaps intentionally, this film is all about emotion. It goes through love, hate, desire, pain and pleasure in rapid succession, but also builds steadily to a pretty mind-boggling conclusion. All the while throughout the film, you can feel that it’s headed somewhere, and it never tries to keep that from the audience. It allows you to feel like you know something that the film doesn’t; which obviously you don’t, but it’s a neat trick if you can pull it off as a filmmaker.
Visually speaking, the film is perfect. It let’s all the scenery fill in the gaps that various short conversations leave open, from the glacial like mountains and greener than green trees, to the clinical, facility-like set up of Nathan’s house. It basically screams at you “NATURE VERSUS NURTURE” in every wide scenic shot and facial expression of Ava, without trying to explain away either theme.
Probably what struck me most about Ex Machina, was how natural the idea of Ava felt as a 21st Century concept. It’s no longer like the 80’s, when the coolest robots in the movies were a man wearing metal (Robocop) and a living hoover in Short Circuit (seriously, watch that film and tell me Johnny Five doesn’t look like a Dyson with arms).
Artificial Intelligence seems very much within our reach as a race, and no longer impresses on its own on the big screen; at least not as it used to. Instead, it was Ava’s unquantifiable ability to express real human emotion as a machine that won me over; and that level of empathy and interaction with another that feels a little rarer than advanced technology in films these days.
I give it 4 blue skies – it didn’t disappoint with its humanity, but took a step away from delving deeply into the creation of artificial intelligence, which allowed a bit more room for some genuine emotion. For some viewers this could have been a positive or a negative, but overall, nothing about the film felt fake to me – sorry, I had to.