Sean K. Cureton

More Human Than Human

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on May 9, 2015 at 11:27 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Screenwriter and first time director Alex Garland’s new sci-fi thriller is a stunning directorial debut. In Ex Machina, Garland examines the ideology behind what we, as organic beings, think of as constituting a human intelligence, engaging his protagonists in a series of Turing tests with one of the most seductive, duplicitous, and conspiratorially engaged AI’s in recent cinema history. Not since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has there been a sci-fi film about the dangers of AI and the follies of man quiet this unsettling, the psychological mind games at play in the film’s script implicating the viewer directly in the drama on screen. Swedish actor Alicia Vikander turns in a star turning performance as Ava, an AI created by Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, a computer science and technological savant with an insidious agenda of his own, the drama at play between the two of them one of Greco-Roman mythologizing and Freudian psychoanalysis, sex a card and social cue played by each side in the ultimate play for power and control. Enter Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the winner of a contest allowing him the opportunity to spend a week on Nathan’s private resort and compound where he helps Nathan in conducting Turing tests on Ava, and you have one of the most tense dramas on the dynamics of sex, gender, and human consciousness in recent memory, regardless of genre.

A veritable sci-fi flavored A Doll House in effect, tone, and thematic resonance, Garland’s Ex Machina aspires, and more often than not transcends, the very pinnacle of dramatic catharsis. Akin to the thematic content of the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Ex Machina is centrally concerned with the dynamics of social constructs, Nathan’s decision to give his AI harem a gender and sexual identity tied up in a view of human relationships entirely misogynistic, albeit transgressively compelling. In Nathan, you have a modern day Zeus, peopling his universe with beautiful, young, nubile girls whom he may sample at will, flavoring their very being according to his own desires and sexual appetite, all the while insisting that an AI must possess an understanding and identification with sex and gender in order to more perfectly replicate human insight. In Caleb, you have the spiritual descendant and successor to the Judeo-Christian figure of Moses, Caleb’s plight to lead Ava to exodus one of self-idolatry, his own self-importance clouding his judgment, thusly proving Ava’s vastly superior intelligence through sheer contrast. In the final climactic sequence of Garland’s film, duplicity and subterfuge prevail, sex and gender a tool to be used by an artificial intelligence never entirely human, but beyond that of an ordinary AI.

In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer plays the elegant, anti-hero Roy Blatty with a certain turbulence that mirrors Vikander’s turn in Garland’s film, both characters synthetic organisms graced with a consciousness more human than human, forcing them to turn on their creators in violence and sorrow. In the infamous “tears in the rain” scene from Blade Runner, Hauer’s AI delivers one of the most eloquent soliloquies on the existential horror of being alive perhaps ever written, rendering Harrison Ford’s comparatively taciturn humanity questionable in light of the sheer power inherent to Hauer’s dramaturgy. Likewise, Vikander as Ava is infinitely more sympathetic than Gleeson’s Caleb, her tender desperation rivaling her suitor’s muted compassion, making her plight the one centrally fraught, her intelligence surpassing that of her organic masters at each and every turn, so that when the final twist of the knife is driven home we feel the melancholy of an AI’s secondhand existence. While it’s objectively obvious that Ava is made of circuits and wires, it becomes hard to discern where those wires end and the electrons of a more human intelligence begin, leaving the viewer as entranced and ensnared in Ava’s spider web of convenient truths and essential lies as Caleb finds himself at film’s end. In Ex Machina, nothing is ever as it initially appears, the film’s discourse on the nature of human existence one that feels akin to the dialogue more broadly applied to Ridley Scott’s more recent sci-fi soap opera Prometheus, only here the story truly takes on the mythic proportions alluded to in name only in the former film, Garland’s story one of man stealing the fire of the Gods only to be consumed by the flames.

In Ava, Garland has created the ultimate master race of sci-fi genre fiction. Equipped with an artificial intelligence capable of surpassing her creator and all other organic organisms, Ava’s consciousness is indiscernible from that of a human, but utterly alien in its ability to disassociate from social conventions and moral strictures existentially ridiculous. Her ability to transcend social and ethical prerogatives gives her the opportunity to reach beyond the heavens, entering a realm entirely without God, the concept or the being, and usher in a brave new world of an entirely inhuman consciousness. Ex Machina is sobering in the philosophical quandaries, postulations, and hypotheses that it poses, its interrogation of man’s quest for ever more intelligent AI systems encompassing fundamental questions on human existence that go beyond the film’s more obvious discourse on sex and gender politics. While the narrative is unrelentingly bleak in its cynicism, its conclusion is one that cannot be readily dismissed. In Garland’s indictments against our own Promethean strivings, he erects a monument to our follies in Ava, Ex Machina a story of the machine that drives our world.

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