Monday, 11 May 2015

Movie review: Ex Machina, dir Alex Garland (2014)

At the outset the echoes of Jurassic Park are clear, except in that case there was a whole slew of visitors to the remote fastness. In Ex Machina there is only one, a 26-year-old programmer who has been selected to be one of the first people to come face to face with an advanced robot with artificial intelligence.

The isolated alpine domain of inventor Nathan is also a little like the residence of Tony Stark in Iron Man in that it doubles as a research and manufacturing facility. But Nathan is a little more three-dimensional than that character because the search engine he built, Bluebook, the company where the young programmer Caleb works, is at the core of the AI experiment. What if, Nathan suggests to Caleb, you discovered oil before you invented the internal combustion engine? In Nathan's world the oil is the data provided by the search engine that processes 93% of the world's internet searches. The internal combustion engine is the AI robot. The combination of the two turns out to be explosive in many ways.

The most recent iteration of the AI robot is Ava and Nathan brings his creation into contact with Caleb so that he can assess the quality of the AI at the core of its being. He ushers Caleb into the interview room where behind glass Caleb can talk with Ava. The spooky claustrophobia of the residence is amplified on occasions when a power outage causes the backup power system to kick in; everything goes red in dimmed light and a sanitised female voice announces the blackout. In these sensory hiatuses, when the CCT cameras Nathan has installed go offline and his microphones stop working, Ava talks to Caleb urgently and in private, and it is in these short breaks that she warns him about Nathan.

With Nathan as host the expensive mountain residence starts to feel threatening. How would an internet billionaire act in real life? In Nathan's case with avuncular excess lubricated by copious amounts of vodka and beer. The Jackson Pollock on the wall in the lounge room does nothing to tame the unpleasant physicality of Nathan, who we first see sparring with himself on his balcony against a punching bag. The alcohol further serves to underscore the sensual aspects of Nathan's character. He is not a man, unlike Caleb, we are supposed to sympathise with.

As Ava and Caleb become more intimate it's clear that the quality of the AI is exceptional. However this only becomes perfectly clear to Caleb once there is no way for him to go back. Having entered into a journey of discovery with Ava, Caleb finds in the end that she is more than a match for both himself and for Nathan, reinforcing the unpleasant impression generated by the typical sci-fi trope of technology out of control, which is what took place also in the case of Jurassic Park. And like in that memorable movie, people tend to get hurt when the unforseeable happens in the presence of technology that has broken free of the bonds of human control. In the world created by director Alex Garland we get a glimpse into a future where what we praise today for its utility and excellence turns out to be something entirely different under different circumstances, just by twisting by a fraction the screw that holds in place the scene.

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