I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a huge fan of science fiction films with the exception of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which I still consider the finest movie in the genre despite the fact that it’s 64 years old. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve been missing a true classic about a flying saucer that lands in Washington, D.C., with its pilot, Klaatu, and his giantgantic robot, Gort. The stars were Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, and as is usually the case with great films, some idiots decided to remake it, resulting in the embarrassingly disastrous 2008 version with Keanu “I-Can’t Act” Reeves and Jennifer Connelly in the lead roles.
GORT AND KLAATU
Now after all those years, I’ve seen a science fiction movie that really captured my attention, and although I won’t by any means put it above “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I definitely will put it second on my very short list of favorites in the genre. Titled “Ex Machina,” this British gem written and directed by Alex Garland (This is his directorial debut.) is so imaginative, original, engaging, and thought provoking that it may become an instant classic.
The story begins in the offices of the massive search engine known as Bluebook, where a highly intelligent computer programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhall Gleeson) learns that he’s the winner of a company-sponsored lottery. His prize is to meet Bluebook’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), and spend week with him at his estate buried in the wilderness of a mountain range.
It turns out that Nathan’s home is one befitting a reclusive genius, and the only way Caleb can get there is via a helicopter that drops him off far enough from the entrance that he has quite a hike left to reach it, and when he finally arrives, he must undergo a rather interesting process to gain access to the place. After he’s inside, Caleb realizes he’s in a massive subterranean dwelling, and when he ultimately meets Nathan, he comments on the fact that there are no windows, but Nathan quickly explain this.
“This isn’t a house. It’s a research facility. Buried in these walls is enough fiber-optic cable reach the moon and lasso it, and I want to talk with you about my research; I want to share it with you. In fact I want to share it so with you so much it’s eating me up inside. But there’s something I need you to do for me first.”
Nathan then asks Caleb to sign an elaborate nondisclosure agreement. At first Caleb is reluctant to do so, but he finally complies, and the following conversation ensues.
Nathan: So do you know what the Turing Test is?
Caleb: Yeah. I know what the Turing Test is. It’s when a human interacts with a computer, and if the human doesn’t know they’re interacting with a computer, the test is passed.
Nathan: And what does a pass tell us?
Caleb: That the computer has artificial intelligence. Are you building an A.I.?
Nathan: I’ve already built one, and over the next few days you’re going to be the human component in the Turing Test.
Caleb: Holy shit!
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right, Caleb. You got it because if that test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.
Caleb: If you have created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man; that’s the history of God.
Usually in the Turing Test the human being doesn’t know whether the other component is real person or a computer, but in Nathan’s version he introduces Caleb to a beautiful Android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and she has a week to convince Caleb that she has human consciousness. The result is an incredibly impressive piece of filmmaking.
“Ex Machina” definitely qualifies as a science fiction thriller, but it’s worlds apart from the stereotypical ones rife with spaceships, explosions, and ear-shattering battle scenes. No, this film is a taut intellectual and psychological game of cat and mouse between two techno-geeks with a stunningly beautiful android thrown into the mix. Vikander is trained in dance, and often her movements are so balletic that she just seems to flow from place to place.
Although some may criticize the film for being too “talky,” I thought the dialogue between Ethan and Ava, as well as that between Ethan and Nathan, was almost hypnotic in a way. As the story progresses, Ethan becomes so caught up in the continuing test that he begins to question his own identity. In an online interview with Ben Kendrick of Screen Rant, Gleeson offered an interesting analysis of the test.
“I think at the very heart of the film is the test. So he’s gotta test this computer to see if it’s developed enough to be self-aware, to be conscious, and then after that to have feeling and emotion and relationships and things like that.
“That question fascinated me, because as soon as you start asking those questions about a machine, you start asking them about a human and say, ‘Well, what really does it mean to like somebody, to be in love with somebody? What are emotions?’ Obviously we know they are chemical reactions in our brains. We form all these little things.
And then when you break that down, then you’re looking at a machine. The brain is nothing if not a machine. And then you have to ask the question, ‘Well, just because one is made from flesh and blood and one is made from metal, why would those things… can they be judged to be different?’”
“And that question absolutely fascinates me and still fascinates me. And, of course the human side of you wants to say, ‘Well of course it’s different! I’ve got a soul, and I’ve got all this stuff.’ But actually, that’s kind of null and void, because why would the machine not have a soul if it has everything else that we have?”
The acting in the movie is consistently superb, and the special effects are among the best you’ll ever see on the silver screen. Because the film was shot on location at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen, Norway, the few outdoor segments are breathtakingly beautiful.
Although the action in the film begins slowly, Garland masterfully turns up the tension a little bit at a time, and when the film reaches its completely unpredictable denouement, you will be on the edge of your seat. There are a number of twists throughout the movie, but the one at the end is real knockout.
“Ex Machina” is the best film about A.I. that I’ve ever seen, and for those who express skepticism about the whole idea, Garland provided a perfect response in an online interview with Tim Lewis of The Guardian.
“My position is really simple: I don’t see anything problematic in creating a machine with a consciousness, and I don’t know why you would want to stop it existing. I think the right thing to do would be to assist it existing. So whereas most A.I. movies come from a position of fear, this one comes from a position of hope and admiration.”
“Ex Machina” qualifies as the most impressive film of the young summer season by far, and as such it earns the final score of a fabulous 10. Now if we could just figure out how to get Ava and Gort together!