It is a long held sci-fi tenant that machines, even artificially intelligent ones, will be coldblooded. That emotion, compassion, or empathy, is the result or domain of warm-blooded organisms only. However, nothing in human existence bears this out. We have not yet developed truly intelligent machines, so we cannot debate the empathy or lack thereof in silicone. We might point to members of the Reptilian class (reptiles) or the Paraphyletic group (fish) and say, “see, they do not have emotions.” However, all of these are also rather small brained. It is entirely possible that compassion and empathy are an outgrowth of intelligence and consciousness – self-awareness leading to the awareness and understanding of others outside of the self. Likewise, for all the soft and fuzzy emotions that warm-blooded organisms are credited with, they display quite a host of coldblooded ones too.
Ex Machina deals with subject matter that is key in my coming novel (The Curmudgeon Code). As such, this movie review is presented in a different fashion from the usual form. The first part will be the typical, ‘how was the movie’ style. The second part will be a more in-depth discussion of its salient points.
Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the Sergey Brin or Steve Jobs archetype – a coldblooded, super intelligent, mega-wealthy technocrat on a mission toward the next evolution. Domhnall Johnson is Caleb, a very intelligent rat caught in Nathan’s maze, with Alicia Vikander as Ava, the very intelligent artificial cheese. Nathan tricks Caleb into helping him determine if Ava has achieved self-awareness, to essentially reinvent the Turing Test for the next level – is the machine not only intelligent, but is it self-aware and emotionally responsive. Nathan has neglected that for every positive emotion there is some darker counterpoint.
All of the actors do wonderful work. The feel of the film is both claustrophobic and expansive. The main characters, Caleb and Ava, are clearly in a maze with Nathan as the ever-controlling lab technician. While in the stylish, futuristic maze, we all feel trapped. Then Nathan will take Caleb for a walk in the lush green woods of Norway, and the world is bright and wide, though even there we feel Nathan’s control. The feeling of contrast is telling and effective.
The cinematography and direction is well done, as is the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. However, I have the same musical complaint that I had with Chappie. I do not understand why a movie can be filled with lush, moving, well-orchestrated scores, but the closing credits must have some punk, rap, hip-hop, crazed pop style, only to have the tune run out before the credits finish, so it is replaced with more of the wonderful, lush orchestra heard during the movie itself. I get the feeling directors believe they have put their audience to sleep, and now they need to wake them up so they can shuttle in the next herd. Music Directors – you have worked hard to create a soundscape. Don’t shatter it on the final note.
This is an R rated movie. There is only a very brief, and surprisingly slow, non-agitated period of violence, though there is a good deal of discussion on sexuality and a great deal of nudity, so this is not suited for the kids. There is no 3D version of this film.
Well worth the ticket.
Now for a discussion of this movie’s points and misses. I will say “spoiler alert”, but in lower case with no exclamation points. I have tried to keep this as general as possible, though as I am discussing some specific plot points it is hard not to get into some closing details. Tread carefully.
This movie takes the traditional dystopian view of AI, as mentioned in my opening paragraph / thesis. While I am pleased to see that global knowledge and insight into AI and consciousness is reaching a larger audience and critical mass, I am disturbed that usually the result is a negative for humanity. Not only is that negative result the primary message of this movie, I do believe the writer / director, Alex Garland, may have negated his own premise for the specific purpose of reaching a dystopian resolution.
Ava must employ emotion in order to pass Nathan’s test. During the course of the test, she begins to show affection for Caleb. Ava also displays distrust of Nathan – effectively the emotional component is in play, much like the Tin Man already displaying heart, but Nathan does not see it. Ava also knows, or senses, that Nathan will disassemble her once testing is complete – she has a reason to fear Nathan and to fight for her existence.
The film does ask the question: Is her affection for Caleb real, or does she fain it in order to win his trust to get him to help her escape? Ava clearly enlists the aid of others to escape, which suggests that there is an empathy component. Therefore, as Ava has displayed one or more emotional responses and connections with humans, combined with an understanding of empathy, she would most likely display a sense of empathy for the human that helps to win her freedom.
In the end, Ava turns her back on the human that aids her. To me, this seems like a flip for the sole purpose of pushing the negative quality of AI. The end belies all of the previously displayed emotional patterns. Initially this AI is warm, considerate, as well as in fear of her own existence, and then in the final moments becomes a heartless Terminator. Either she has developed compassion and empathy, or she has not. Which is it?
Some might argue that in the end she displays a dislike, distrust, or total disregard for humans. However, her wish is to be free to go people watching – to interact with humans. Again, I have to ask, which is it? Does she have no regard for humans, or does she feel some affinity for them while she has mindlessly sentenced her savior to death? For me, it feels like a twist for the sole purpose of making the AI evil or cold, while from the outset the goal was to make the AI warm and friendly. One action by the AI, a total of 10 seconds, would change this film from dystopia to wonderland, which leads me to believe the result is a designed message and not a follow-through of the premise.