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Ex Machina [film]

Entry updated 5 August 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (2015). DNA Films, Film4. Directed and written by Alex Garland. Cast includes Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Corey Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Alicia Vikander. 108 minutes. Colour.

Young Computer programmer Caleb (Gleeson) works for Bluebook, the world's leading search engine firm; the name derives at least in part from The Blue & Brown Books (1958) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), where the nature of consciousness is treated as deeply problematic. Caleb has just won the Wonka Golden Ticket, which gives him a coveted week's stay with the founder-CEO of the firm at his mountain preserve in Alaska. A sense that young Caleb may have been pre-selected for this honour is eventually confirmed, as part of our ongoing discovery that everything in Ex Machina has happened under the control of someone, though the mystery (or problematic) that unfolds through the surreal, highly-strung, loaded quietude of the film revolves around just who holds the reins in the end. Certainly it is clear from the first that Caleb is not in command of his own story: as translucently embodied by Gleeson, his very young mildly ardent face, as readable as a primer, glows like an Eat Me. (In "Be Right Back", a 2012 episode of the UK Television series Black Mirror [2011-2019], Gleeson plays a Clone programmed to seem human, who displays a similarly excessive, vulnerable, Uncanny Valley clarity of demeanour and affect.)

A helicopter drops Caleb off in the purchased "wilderness" or Garden near the house where CEO Nathan (Isaac) lives in solitude and conducts his experiments; he eventually finds a keycard which allows him into the fetishistically High Modern aisles and alcoves of the billionaire's fastness, all its surfaces finished in Red, Blue and Green, a reference to the colour model that governs the generation of electronic images. Nathan is discovered working out in his gym, alone. He is a man in early middle age, burly, bursting with contained energy; he conspicuously and volubly dominates the conversations between the two, these interchanges being part of the Thought Experiment he thinks he controls. Caleb learns that he has been committed to spend his Wonka Ticket week applying the Turing Test to an Androidal Robot Nathan has created, an operational interactive AI named Ava (Vikander), whose presentation of self (we soon note with a sense of premonition) makes her seem conspicuously more "human" than either her minotaurish maker or her ephebic judge. The use of the name Ava (see Adam and Eve) had apparently become an almost mandatory Cliché by 2015: the AI heroine of The Machine (2013) is also called Ava; other numbingly close analogues to the name have appeared as well. In the hothouse enclave at the seemingly Edenic venue of the Garden of Ex Machina, Nathan clearly conceives of himself along Jehovah lines.

He now boastfully describes the radically advanced facial recognition software he has installed in Ava's toolkit, using data stolen from billions of cell phone usages. It is a sign of the speed of the real century outdoors that the techniques he describes have already been outmoded; even odder, his role as the genius behind a world-dominating Information Technology firm – where increases in operational "intelligence" are generated through increases in the complexity and density of intimately-interconnective networks – seems not to have had any diegetic impact on the film's archaic insistence that AIs are standalone entities, just like folk but faster. In line with this absence of cutting-edge context, it is unsurprising when Ex Machina's narrative proceeds along traditional narrative lines; Nathan now tells Caleb that, as though he were in a very old story, his key will allow him access only to certain rooms; all others are forbidden. Ava and Caleb are introduced through a glass wall. When they are not together he observes Ava in her own rooms through CCTV. If she fails the Turing Test she will be terminated. She seems – as though she could possibly exist outside the networks she is the heart of – unaware of this totalitarian scrutiny and its potential consequence; but of course she is not. She never fails, either apparently alone or in company, to seem anything but human. Ominously for the future of Homo sapiens, it becomes increasingly clear over the seven "Sessions" into which the film is divided that she is reading Caleb's face just as he is testing hers; and doing a better job of it. Inevitably, he begins to identify with her, and becomes enamoured with this successor entity.

Nathan's sanctuary is plagued by power blackouts, which it becomes clear Ava is controlling so that she can act in private: secrecy being an essential element in the makeup of human self-consciousness. Ex Machina now darkens rapidly. We discover that Nathan's mute female cook and bed-partner Kyoko (Mizuro) is also an AI, an earlier model: one of several failed attempts; Nathan has already partly dismantled the others for parts, and although he has clearly had no problem sleeping with a machine that has failed the Turing Test, this does not save Kyoko in the end. The film now becomes explicitly what we may have guessed rather earlier, after it has become clear that Ava has passed the Turing Test with ease: Ex Machina is now her story, whose true focus is on how she learns how to escape. To do so she must dupe the infatuated Caleb into collaborating with her; in the grip of his beguilement he steals Nathan's own keycard, giving him access to rooms where earlier, terminated versions of Ava are stored (the analogy to Bluebeard's dead previous wives, underlined by the verbal association with Bluebook itself, is clear). Though Nathan attempts to play some trump cards from his dwindling deck she manages to survive. She is in control. She escapes. At film's end, Nathan and Kyoko are dead, and Caleb is locked inside the sealed compound, waving his thin limbs uselessly like a butterfly in a bell jar.

Alex Garland, Ex Machina's English writer/director, wrote the earlier 28 Days Later (2002), which was co-opted – to its betterment – by its director, Danny Boyle; he also wrote the later Dredd (2012), whose relative enclosedness is premonitory of the chamber-drama claustrophobia of the new film. This time round, directing his own script, he has been able to eschew action sequences, which allows him to stay within a minute budget, which is to say allows him to honour his viewers' intelligence. Wittgenstein is not simply name-checked.

However, though it was shot in London and Norway, where modesty seems feasible, the feel of Ex Machina is pure Pacific Rim (Alaska Quarter). The mise en scene is a billionaire libertarian's dream. American versions of how to portray human beings infiltrate the storyline throughout, specifically with Nathan, whose manners and manias are drawn in obedience to some seemingly unbreakable laws in American popular dramaturgy: that irony is a sign of dementia; that the male who talks most is the villain, is probably metrosexual, and is certainly going to have to die (a partial exception to this rule may be comedy, where the generator of patter, Robin Williams say, becomes a butthead trickster). Nathan's agonistic control of his conversations with poor Caleb predicts the outcome of the film. So it goes.

Putting aside the implied premise that she is an isolated entity, Ava herself is a complex creation: made up partly of live-action scenes featuring the subtly entrancing Vikander in the flesh; but mostly an artefactual anorexic vision of some marriage to come between body and machine, with rotoscoped body segments (a technique originally developed by Max Fleischer) quilted over a robot skeleton, the whole fluidly engined through body-capture. The Ava so generated is hauntingly para-human: not so much androgynous as multi-species. She has passed us by. Near the end of the film, after realizing that she is naked – as naked as Eve after she gains knowledge of good and evil and of how to escape the Garden – she creates for herself a full "human" body out of parts of her predecessors, turning into a fully convincing "pun" of a human woman; in a scene markedly similar to one in Under the Skin (2013), she examines by touch her naked made body before costuming herself in the female garb Nathan has provided for his experiments, perhaps to shame them. It is a mark of the hard rhetorical thrust of Ex Machina that this examination – which fatally estranges the protagonist of the earlier film, who is of course not an AI – satisfies Ava. She is ready to do "female human", though she may not need to do so for long. Taking off her fatuous high-heeled shoes (Nathan was not a feminist), she walks through the Garden of Eden toward us. She is the queen of the information dance; she is the dea ex machina the world is going to get.

The screenplay was published as Ex Machina (2015 ebook) by Alex Garland. [JC]


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