Humanity is now just one part of who we are. In 2015, we are as much our Facebook profiles, our phone data and our internet search results as we are our epidermis, our vital organs, our inquisitive minds. We naturally resist this idea, repulsed by the possibility that our sense of self has extended in some undefinable and arguably unnatural directions. But have we become less human, or more?
What humanity means against the closing divide between technology and biology look like, is given one immensely important interpretation by writer/director Alex Garland, with his evocative sci-fi parable Ex Machina. Garland is no stranger to these types of ‘what if’ movies that confront what it means to be human through the intrusion of a decidedly non-human element. In 28 Days Later it was zombies, in Never Let Me Go it was the inhumane scientific practice of harvesting clones to increase life expectancy. These movies ask where nor not humanity can defeat its various antitheses.
Here, the story begins with the introduction of another antithesis to our understanding of humanity: the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence, in the form of the beautiful Ava (relatively new actress Alicia Vikander). Ava was created by the reclusive, billionaire tech-genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who flies Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented young computer programmer he doesn’t know, into his secret laboratory. Caleb is tasked with aiding Nathan in testing whether or not Ava truly is indistinguishable from human beings through multiple interviews. But each character, both man an machine, has their own secret motives and desires.
Behind the camera for the first time, Garland locks his main characters in a confined space and then probes them with a quiet ferocity to uncover the humanity, or lack thereof, in all three of them. Like the best parables, the narrative itself is kept deceptively simple but introduces layer upon layer of themes which are both universal and timely. With expert efficiency, Garland whips up a ceaseless momentum as we are taken from revelation to revelation. By the end it becomes obvious that, through Garland’s quiet sense of urgency, every single beautifully-photographed shot served a singular purpose.
Alicia Vikander plays Ava with the keen awareness that audiences will search her face endlessly for clues to whether or not she really is human. Watching Vikander becomes a game of trying to spot the uncanny valley. What did Ava’s twitch mean? Was that blink normal? What does she want? Of course, the ultimate reversal is that the same sense of paranoia extends to the two human characters. What did Caleb’s twitch mean? Was Nathan’s blink telling us something? What do they want? Because each performance is packed with subtle cues, the three leads work together to break down the divide of what a human should or can be and what a machine should or can be. It’s a trippy mindf*** that doesn’t have to rely on plot twists — though there are those, too. Icing on the cake, I suppose.
An easy argument could be made that Nathan is a fairly unrealistic character. He invented this universe’s version of Google and the world’s most impressive artificial intelligence. He displays the correct amount of antisocial behavior, but little of the type of work ethic you’d expect from such an achiever. Yet Isaac is one of those rare actors that could play a talking, tap-dancing donut and we’d all probably buy the performance whole-heartedly. Caleb, meanwhile, is a bit of a vanilla character by design. Though Gleeson has that rare ability to earn audience sympathy effortlessly, his character’s lack of backstory and generally inoffensive personality makes him the weakest link of the three.
Vikander, on the other hand, is absolutely astonishing. When I left the theater, I told a friend how impressive I found the ‘two lead actors’, thinking of Gleeson and Isaac. It took me a moment to remember that Ava was also played by a human and was not, in fact, a robot. Like Andy Serkis performed The Planet of the Apes’ Caesar with such commitment and skill, I ceased to believe I was watching actors or, in Vikander’s case, a human at all.
There’s an aesthetic phenomenon known to those who work in fields of computer graphics or humanoid robots called ‘the uncanny valley’. It works like this: when an object or simulation is made to appear human-like, there is a point in the process in which the almost-human becomes intensely creepy, due to small not-quite-right cues signaling the artificiality of the image or object in question. If one can make something that looks and/or behaves exactly like a human, then the creepy response of the uncanny valley would be thwarted and replaced by a positive acceptance of accurate, human performance.
Ex Machina presents a world where the uncanny valley has been vanquished, and AI is indistinguishable from ourselves. If we are no longer creeped out by the fake, if we are in fact comfortable with it, accepting of it, attracted to it — is there anything ‘fake’ about it? The film explores the ethical ramifications of this, but also how our psychology would react, how our biology would react. Will it one day become necessary for us to expand our understanding of what it means to ‘be’ altogether? And if so, do we as humans have the mental or moral capacity to do so?
While watching Ex Machina, I could point out zero flaws. It largely felt like watching an instant classic, a modern masterpiece, perhaps one of the most important science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey. It should also be noted that this is not simply a sci-fi movie, but also a romance, a slow-burn thriller, a psychosexual drama, and above all a masterful example of social commentary. This is the movie I wished Her had been. This is the movie that I wished Under The Skin had been.
I was entranced by this movie and everything about it, and I didn’t want it to end. The aforementioned triptych of performances, the magnificent cinematography, the effectively creepy score by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow and the script’s introspective, soul searching quality locked me in, in a way audiences very rarely get to experience.
Score: 5 out of 5