When the histories are written years from now, our era will be defined by information technology in much the same way that the 1960s were defined by rock ‘n’ roll and social protest, or in the U.S., the ’20s by Prohibition. People will look back with bewilderment at images of us — like we do at those strange ’50s movie audiences in their 3-D glasses — incessantly stroking our phones in that compulsive and vaguely masturbatory way, head down, eyes glazed over, entirely disconnected from the world around us.
What’s striking about this fetishistic attachment to personal tech is the way it has insinuated itself into not just our work, but also our lives, our memories, even our bodily functions. Yet with the exception of Spike Jonze’s “Her” in 2013, no films have dared to examine the implications of advanced technophilia. With “Ex Machina,” screenwriter Alex Garland’s debut as a director, we now have a film for the zeitgeist.
On one level, “Ex Machina” is a taut sci-fi thriller of boy-meets-fembot, a claustrophobic mind game that will keep you guessing till the last reel. On another, it’s the best exploration of what it means to be a self-aware machine in a world run by humans since “Blade Runner.” Beyond that, it captures the hubris underlying Silicon Valley techno-evangelism, that self-aggrandizing belief in a utopia of intelligent machines, where “the singularity” is awaited like the rapture.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||108 mins|
Embodying that value system is Nathan Bateman, played by Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), shaven-headed, bespectacled, and sporting a bushy hipster beard. Nathan is the CEO of Blue Book, the world’s largest search-engine corporation, but he’s ensconced himself in a remote mansion that looks like the Fuhrer-bunker as designed by Steve Jobs.
Into his lair comes Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, the most successful of the “Harry Potter” alumni), a slightly geeky coder at Blue Book who has won a competition to spend a week with their genius boss. He soon learns that Nathan has invited him for a reason — which he’s eager to “share” with Caleb, as soon as he signs a nondisclosure agreement.
Right from the outset, Garland highlights the power arrangements inherent in our relationships with big tech. Want to see something cool? Ignore the fine print, dude. Nathan, barefoot and sharing brewskis with his bro, is so convinced of his casual, non-boss-like behavior that he barely notices how domineering he is — narcissists are like that; they don’t get it — but the prison-like home with its omnipresent surveillance and auto-locking doors feels threatening from Caleb’s side.
Caleb learns he’s been selected to perform a Turing test with Nathan’s latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android with a human form and face but with limbs and torso that reveal her inner circuitry. That bit is deliberate: Her artificial intelligence is so highly developed, claims Nathan, that even seeing she’s a robot will not deter you from thinking she has a human consciousness, a personality — perhaps even a heart?
Caleb’s blown away by Ava. Like any tech nerd, he’s delighted in a gee-whiz sort of way, but also a bit flustered and smitten by the fact that it’s female. And, is it just him, or did they have “a moment”? Caleb keeps going back to test Ava — or is she testing him? Ava is aware enough to perceive her position is no better than a lab rat. And what are Nathan’s goals here? His heavy drinking and arrogant behavior with his submissive Japanese maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) do not bode well.
Docile Kyoko and the hot ‘bot design have led some people to call “Ex Machina” misogynistic, but that’s kind of like calling “Apocalypse Now” pro-war. In “Ex Machina” Garland asks us to ponder whether men, who struggle to understand the female mind at the best of times, are best-equipped to program one. And if they do, to what ends?
Don’t go there, I hear you saying, but Garland does, and produces a remarkable sci-fi classic.
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