Science fiction has long explored the question of what it is to be human. This philosophical topic has involved different non-human figures, such as extra-terrestrials in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Avatar,” clones in “Never Let Me Go” and “The Island” and perhaps most frequently, artificial intelligence. Films such as “Metropolis,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” “Short Circuit” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” all explore the question of whether an artificial organism can be considered a person. As a result, these films have fuelled countless pub debates, message board discussions and university seminars, and filmmakers continually return to this topic.
2015 has blessed the film watcher with several contributions to this debate, as it seems to be the Year of the Robot. Already “Big Hero 6” has won the Oscar for Animated Feature and later films include “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as well as “Terminator Genesys” and a re-release of “Blade Runner.” The early part of the year offers two interesting portrayals of robots — “Chappie” and Ex Machina. The latter is both a worthy contributor to the debate over the humanity of AI and a stunning directorial debut by Alex Garland. Garland’s work as a screenwriter includes “Dredd,” “Sunshine,” “28 Days Later…” and, significantly, “Never Let Me Go.” Much like Mark Romanek’s film, Ex Machina features Domhnall Gleeson and focuses on a small number of characters that discuss the boundaries of humanity, personhood and how these are determined. Caleb (Gleeson) is a young coder in a giant software company who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he learns that Nathan has built an artificial intelligence and that Caleb is to test the sentience of the AI. To complicate matters, the robot is an alluring female-gendered machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava’s conversations along with Nathan’s observations cause Caleb and indeed the audience to question their own expectations about what constitutes consciousness, personhood and humanity.
Ex Machina takes as its starting point the Turing test, which determines a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, the intelligence of a human. But there is a twist, which Caleb raises: the human performing the test is not supposed to know that they are interacting with a machine, and it is clear from the start of this test, both to Caleb and the audience, that Ava is a robot. Initially we are told about this, but the film underlines Ava’s artificiality through the sight of servo-mechanisms within her body, and through Vikander’s other-worldly performance. With almost balletic movement and a detached yet musical vocal register, Ava is explicitly “Other,” and the sound design aids to this quality about her. The ambient hum of technology, especially though not only from her inner workings, permeates the fabric of the film much as it penetrates the very being of Caleb. At no point is anyone in doubt that Ava is a robot, but rather than determining whether we are viewing a human or not (which fuels the endless debate around whether Deckard in “Blade Runner” is a replicant), Ex Machina asks what does it mean when a being we know to be a robot exhibits “human” behavior? Is Ava simply a complex combination of algorithms or is she a person? Then again, are human beings also complex combinations of algorithms, responding in ways that we learn through experience and social conditioning? Nathan explicitly makes this comparison when he explains that he devised Ava’s mind from algorithms used in search engines and that search engines are designed to mimic the way humans think. In creating Ava, creating a person, has Nathan not only bridged the gap between humans and machines, but between humans and gods?
Does God feature in this machine? The title’s omission of the word “deus” from the phrase “deus ex machina” does suggest the erasure of the divine concept. Why would we need a sense of the divine when we perform acts of creation ourselves? In “Chappie,” the titular robot is described as “godless”, but in Ex Machina, Nathan has derived a sense of his own divinity through his act of creation. From the machine, he has become a god. Discussions between the characters delve into notions of creator and creation, past and future. The viewer is drawn into these discussions as well, and while various conclusions can be reached, later developments problematize these conclusions. Garland also ensures that the film is not simply a philosophy seminar, as the potentially staid scenario is beautifully cinematic. The film’s uncanny quality is encapsulated in Mark Digby’s production design that creates locations that feel both inhabited and alienating. Surfaces that are both reflective and transparent force the viewer to look harder at what may be more than it appears. Rob Hardy’s cinematography also conveys an eerie sense that what Caleb encounters is slightly off, as the play of light on characters and their surroundings obscures as much as it reveals. All three performers are mesmerizing, as is a mute performance by Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan’s servant, Koyoko. Vikander especially conveys Ava’s curious interest in humanity, herself and the relations between them with a spellbinding appeal, making Caleb’s actions understandable. But just when you think you have the film figured out, it turns in an expected direction that can leave you re-evaluating what may have just happened and, indeed, what you expect to happen. In doing so, Ex Machina is not only an enthralling drama but also a film that philosophizes, illuminating our own expectations and encouraging us to question them.