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Ex Machina asks the 21st century’s biggest ethical questions

Alex Garland’s work as a novelist (The Beach, Coma) and screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine) is, at its best, defined by a careful command of tone balanced with obvious intelligence. It should not come as a surprise that Ex Machina, Garland’s first time behind the director’s chair, demonstrates these qualities in abundance.

This sparse sci-fi establishes its premise swiftly, as Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), employee of Google-analogue Bluebook, wins a staff lottery to join the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), on his isolated island estate. We watch Caleb transported in through verdant hills via helicopter – recalling Jurassic Park – and we wander through Nathan’s expansive manor, which resembles the exaggerated modernity of Playtime’s office building spliced together with nature – cut through natural rock outcrops, adorned with warm oak panels, surrounded by lush greenery. (The parallels with those two films – centring on the hubris of overambition and the perils of technology, respectively – don’t seem at all accidental.) Garland’s camera pushes ever closer, gliding through sleek halls as though entranced by the possibilities ahead.

Those possibilities turn out to centre upon artificial intelligence. Nathan has constructed an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and – after an especially intrusive NDA contract – charges Caleb with assessing a kind of Turing Test: determining whether or not Ava is, in fact, intelligent. The ensuing process – Caleb engages Ava in polite conversation during his seven-day stay – is not precisely a Turing Test, which requires its participants to be unable to distinguish between human and A.I. participants in a double-blind setting, but at least it demonstrates a greater understanding of the test than, say, The Imitation Game (which took its name from the damn test!).

As you might expect, things are not precisely what they seem. Mysterious power outages, Nathan’s secrecy and Caleb’s increasing realisation that he is effectively a prisoner contribute to a growing sense of sinister sterility. Garland’s camera sheds its fascinated kineticism, adopting a more reserved distance. Then things …soften. Caleb develops a bond with Nathan over beers and with Ava – who certainly appears to possess, or at least approximate, consciousness – over flirtatious conversations. The mood shifts towards the contemplative; at once paranoiac, poetic and even erotic.

Naturally, there are more twists in store, but Garland is less interested in providing a dramatic third act than addressing the film’s underlying intellectual framework (the cool fashion in which this act unfolds is, perhaps, a reaction to criticism of Sunshine’s abrupt shift into horror in its third act). There’s a density of ideas here, generally posed as questions. How does one distinguish something with consciousness from something expertly mimicking consciousness? What are the ramifications of true artificial intelligence – of a true post-human world? If we create such consciousness, how can we distinguish it from natural consciousness – and how should we treat it? Are corporations with access to inconceivable amounts of data beholden to use that data ethically?

That last question – like many others asked – is never properly addressed by the film. Nathan reveals that he developed Ava’s intelligence by harvesting data from both his search engine and his wildly popular smartphones. This seems loosely contemporary, perhaps aligning itself with modern fears related to metadata and privacy. Yet it reminded me of an everyday smartphone feature we now take for granted – Google Maps’ ability to model traffic density in real-time and adjust routes accordingly. This is achieved through the company tracking your – and everyone else’s – location via your smartphone, yet uproar about this has been muted because, well, we all like shaving five minutes off our commute home. Similarly, one wonders if we’d be more forgiving of the invasions of privacy detailed here if they resulted in the creation of something truly revolutionary.

Not that Ex Machina is especially interested in examining these ideas in depth. To some degree this is intentional; in an interview with The Dissolve (titled “Alex Garland is fine with not having answers for Ex Machina’s questions”), the director opined “There is a value in posing unanswerable questions.” This is patently true. To demand the film provide a definitive answer such complex questions is to demand a reductive film. Yet as much as I appreciated the film’s refusal to simplify profound post-humanist philosophies down to convenient bite-sized chunks, I couldn’t help but wish the film provoked questions rather than merely presenting them.

Case in point: the film’s take on gender and objectification. Rendering woman as literal objects has historically provided abundant opportunities for cinema to address the less literal objectification of women, and that potential is leveraged here, particularly in the film’s final act. Going into detail would necessitate spoilers but, suffice to say, there’s a feminist thrill to Ex Machina’s final minutes. Yet Ava’s perspective feels peculiarly excluded, with little insight into her interiority – or lack thereof – provided. This is true, to some extent, of Caleb and Nathan as well – neither of whom is given a substantial backstory (outside of a tragic car accident), but they’re given plenty of drunken conversations to flesh their characters out. (And Nathan’s characterisation, in particular, benefits from Isaac’s robust, charismatic performance. But let’s be real: Isaac could give a mute statue a sense of personality.)

Comments from Garland in the aforementioned interview about the ambiguity of Ava’s gender and an abandoned alternate ending (spoilers) make it clear that these choices are deliberate, and that there’s more thought behind Ava’s conception and characterisation than their may appear within the diegesis. Nonetheless, this is still a film that finds time for an extended scene ogling Vikander in the nude – despite introducing her character as a metal-and-mesh machine. The film’s own attempts to reflect upon gender and sexism are weakened by its insistence on a male perspective and the male gaze.

These failings are hardly disastrous; it’s testament to the integrity of the film’s ideas that I’m complaining about seeing Alicia Vikander naked. Still, it’s telling that, as interesting as Ex Machina is, subsequently reading Garland’s comments about the film has proved far more thought-provoking than the film itself.

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