Of late Stephen Hawking has been much in the news for two reasons: his being portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film “The Theory of Everything” and his views on the rapidly approaching birth of artificial intelligence. "The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking has written. To expand on this, many are afraid that if a bunch of hyper-intelligent machines were to suddenly inhabit the planet, they would very quickly ask themselves why they need share this world with a seemingly inferior and weaker race (us), and they would likely find no logical answer. And for those of you not descended from Native Americans or Australian aborigines, take my word for it that this situation will not end well for us. It may turn out that James Cameron and the Wachowski siblings were the true prophets of the last few decades.
But none of these visionaries ever postulated an AI coming in the form of a young beautiful woman of the type most guys never had the guts to talk to in high school.
And these are the weighty-issues addressed by “Ex Machina” a bare-bones sci-fi thriller and pseudo-drama/romance from Alex Garland, who brought us the cult hit “Judge Dredd” a few years ago (not to be confused with Sly Stallone’s abortion of the 1990s). Our story begins when Caleb (Domhall Gleason), a young software coder at the world’s most popular search engine, wins a lottery to spend a week at the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), the company’s reclusive CEO, who invented the search engine when he was 13 and who now dwells in a fortress in the wilderness completely cut off from civilization. After arriving at the fortress and signing the mother of all non-disclosure agreements, Caleb learns his true mission: the Turing test. Nathan has constructed what could be the world’s first AI and Caleb is to engage with it and test whether or not it feels like communicating with a human being. And the fact that Nathan constructed AI in the form of the shapely Ava (Alicia Vikander) surely won’t complicate matters at all.
What follows is what some might consider a slow-moving narrative without a lot of thrills or even much use of potential visual devices to be found in a movie about human-looking robots and super-smart computers. Instead, Garland focuses on exploring the dimension of each of these characters and going beyond their simple archetypes. Caleb starts out as the typical introverted techie that could write the world’s greatest dating app, but who wouldn’t know what to say to a woman on such an app. But could he be more if the chips are down and a damsel is in distress? In Nathan, Issacs gives us what could be the id form of his wannabe mogul in “A Most Violent Year”, equal parts egomania and megalomania and obsessed with building a monument to his own intelligence and ability, moral consequences be damned. You know about five seconds into seeing Ava that within her silicone soul is the desperate yearning for freedom. But if she is really designed to be human, could her agenda really be that uncomplicated?
And that’s what “Ex Machina” is really all about, the question of what it really means to claim and retain one’s humanity. Does Caleb really want to help Ava out of selflessness, or does he think he’s finally found himself a girlfriend? Is Nathan a Svengali jealous of Caleb for coming between him and his Trilby, or is he so self-absorbed and arrogant as to not see what is right in front of him? And does Ava—whether able to mimic human thought and feeling or not—really harbor an attraction to Caleb, or is there more going on? It’s a love triangle for this millennium to be sure.
“Ex Machina” flows right by at 108 minutes and while it might not have attracted audiences enough to lure them from the suburbs all the way downtown to the specialty theaters in its initial limited release, it’s more than worth the trip to the local mall cineplex this week.