A good film about artificial intelligence is possible. But a good philosophical film about such a prospect may not be possible. At some point the concession is made that, yes, such a thing as artificial intelligence is possible and always was—that is, within the world of the film. Yet the question, “Is AI possible in the real world?” is never raised in earnest, so a philosophical discussion is never to be had in earnest.
If the robots are heroes, we pull for them. If they are villains, we hope they fail, much as if they were humans. That said, most movies are bad places for philosophical debates to go on at length. However Ex Machina, at least initially, promises to be different.
The film, which is the directorial debut for Alex Garland (Writer on 28 Days Later and Sunshine), uses the infamous Turing Test as the basis for its plot. Having won a lottery within his tech company, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sent to the secluded estate of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arriving, Caleb quickly learns that he has been placed front and center to the experiment of his lifetime: testing Ava (Alicia Vikander), the beautiful android AI that Nathan has created and keeps locked away in one of the rooms of his high-security personal research compound/mansion. The plan is to have Caleb examine Ava over several days to see if her behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human and therefore truly the first authentic AI.
The premise is quite strong. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the real life Turing Test—which makes its determination of AI based on whether or not a machine can exhibit behavior/characteristics indistinguishable from a human 70% of the time during a five minute interaction with a human interrogator—it provides a unique excuse for three people (or two people and one possible person) to be bottled up together. It harkens back to the old atmospheric science fiction of Ray Bradbury, or The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.
From this set up certain psychologies in the characters are explored. With a glass barrier between them, Caleb and Ava bond, until an opportunity arises for the captive Ava to slip her human counterpart a message without her creator’s constant surveillance. This plants a seed of doubt and suspicion in the lonely programmer sitting across from her and sends the film off down the road of the psychological thriller.
Promising premises aside, the discussion in Ex Machina never really amounts to an examination of the possibility of AI. The inevitability of AI is raised by Nathan on more than one occasion. The film slouches against the expected materialistic and somewhat deterministic notions of human consciousness, though with some clever embellishments for our age of social media.
The film is at its strongest when it hints at a veiled reflection on technology as a mediator for human relationships. When Caleb first meets Nathan early in the film, there are exchanges that seem to indicate the experiment is more about giving the solitary CEO a buddy to hang out with for the week, and it doesn’t take much to read the implications of a neurotic man, with all the luxuries the best technology can afford, living by himself rendering machines into attractive women (caution: there are some scenes of life-like android nudity, although not in graphic sexual contexts). These themes only briefly assert themselves in small bursts of dialogue, but don’t seem to translate into the actions or motivations of the characters throughout the film.
Ultimately, Ex Machina is certainly captivating and well-made but its thematic indecision, as well as some missing character notes, culminates with an ending that is not exactly satisfying. Does Ava have consciousness? Personhood? Perhaps, yes, but her ultimate motivations are not revealed by her actions and don’t appear to have the requisite depth needed to avoid coming off as a typical cinema femme fatale. Such a solid storyline and strong performances from the actors demands more.