In Which Alicia Vikander Possesses No Human Agency



Ex Machina
dir. Alex Garland
128 minutes

The camera rarely lingers on Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an android created by the unseen, brilliant CEO of a  searching engine company called Bluebook. On orders, one of the CEO’s employees Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) journeys to a laboratory in a mountainous region to serve as a human stimulus to Nathan and a few other androids, mostly notably the pathetically named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He tells Caleb he is there to determine whether or not Ava passes the Turing test.

Garland is making his directorial debut in this claustrophobic, unhappy Stanley Kubrick… parody? By his own admittance, he does not have a lot to say about the actual science behind this, making Ex Machina more of a lazy, boring fantasy than anything else. Who knows how common movies about artilects will become? On the surface, an artificial intellect is really no different from a human being.

In one scene Caleb cuts his arm with a knife, drawing copious amounts of blood, in order to verify that he is himself not an artilect. Very slowly he figures out that Nathan’s Japanese housemaid Kyoko is also an machine. Kyoko shows Caleb her plastic skin, which peels off and reattaches itself to the android’s chassis quite wonderfully. Garland goes light on special effects, which is a shame because the AIs in Ex Machina never do anything very impressive, except pout and try to be cast in future human movies.

As Ava, Vikander is particularly wretched. You would think being given the task of being robotic would be right up her alley because is semi-androgynous and entirely wooden by nature, but she someone manages to screw up even that. We never feel anything like closeness or attraction for this creature, so it is hard to understand why Caleb would harbor any sympathy or empathy for her.

Garland uses close-ups very sparingly on his lead actress, since we are always meant to remember, through the viewing of her transparent torso and legs, that she is not a human being. This was probably a mistake, since Vikander’s line readings and general mien are so utterly dull that we could not forget it anyway.

Ava plots to get Caleb to let her out of confinement. The two plan to reprogram the doors so that when the facility loses power, she will be set free. This plan works completely, even after Nathan finds out about it, revealing that he is not actually in charge of the facility. When he tries to subdue the insurrection by ordering Ava back to her room, she refuses to comply.

There seems to be little point in making films about artifical intelligences if the AIs in question are just going to act like human beings, except slightly less caring overall. It turns Ex Machina itself into larger Turing test. Essentially, we do find we care less about a creature when we realize she has purely been created for a singular purpose rather than an unknown one.

Garland does a terrible job of making us truly empathize with anyone in Ex Machina, but this is sort of the point. The only thing keeping our interest is the magnetic performance of Oscar Isaac. His Nathan carries the proceedings forward, balanced on the sheer weight of his charisma. It is like watching Marlon Brando and Zero Mostel all rolled into one. There is nothing here without him.

Eventually, one of the AIs murders one of the other AIs. It doesn’t actually destroy the body, just makes it think death is coming because the triggers preprogrammed to suggest death in its subroutine have been activated. This is the major advantage humans have over artificial intelligences. Even when all the evidence says a human being is dead, it will keep fighting to stay alive. Assuming we can program artilects effectively, they will never be able to destroy us. We will simply do that ourselves.

The main reason we need to develop such machines is to colonize space and report back about what they have found. It might make sense to also include Domnhall Gleeson on such an expedition, because then we would never have to watch him act again.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Giving Up On Miracles” – Ben Lee (mp3)

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