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Ex Machina’ Serves Up Cerebral Sci-Fi

New film explores how we define being human

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson debate what it is that makes us human in the...

Credit: A24

Above: Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson debate what it is that makes us human in the new sci-fi film, "Ex Machina."

KPBS film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "Ex Machina."


Companion Viewing

"Metropolis" (1927)

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

"Blade Runner" (1982)

"Ghost in the Shell" (1995)

"The Machine" (2013)

Movies have had a long fascination with robots and artificial intelligence. The new film "Ex Machina" (opening April 24 in select San Diego theaters) uses state-of-the-art special effects to deliver a smart new take on A.I.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's son), a programmer at an internet-search giant, is recruited to spend a week at the private mountain estate of his company's reclusive genius and CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) in order to administer the Turing test to Nathan’s latest A.I. creation called Ava (Alicia Vikander). The Turing Test assesses a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior on par with that of a human.

Caleb engages in regular sessions with Ava, who has the facial features, hands, and feet of a lovely young woman. The rest of her body, however, is a sleek and supple robotic creation. Caleb tries to elicit emotional responses from Ava and to create situations where she would need to display complex cognitive processes in order to determine if she has moved beyond her programming to actually develop consciousness and be able to function as a human being. What develops is a complicated triangle in which deception plays a key role.

The film marks the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (he wrote "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine"). He delivers a smart and surprisingly assured sci-fi thriller that explores how we define being human. Nathan says people are programmed through nature or nurture to be who they are. Caleb brings a sense of morality to the equation suggesting it's one's ability to distinguish right from wrong that makes us human. But perhaps it’s our will to survive that proves our defining trait and the one that drives Ava to develop a sophisticated intelligence.

"Ex Machina" is an elegantly designed film with outstanding effects yet in the end it's less about effects and more about the story and ideas. The antagonistic relationship between Caleb and Nathan provides the perfect battleground for ideas, and what Garland is most interested in talking about is defining the things that make us human.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: XLrator Media and A24

Comparison of the posters for the Welsh sci-fi action film "The Machine," and the new thriller "Ex Machina," both deal with artificial intelligence that crosses over into consciousness.

When I saw ads for this film I was surprised by how much it looked like the Welsh sci-fi film "The Machine." I had seen it a couple years ago at the Abertoir Film Festival. Both films focus on scientists who have created a female robot that ends up surpassing and challenging its creator. And both raise issues about what happens if a robot actually achieves a level of consciousness that makes us look upon it as human.

In the case of "The Machine," the robot was designed as a weapon and ended up with a higher moral sense than its maker. In "Ex Machina," Ava is designed more as an exercise in ego on the part of Nathan. The films overlap in many ways but end up tackling slightly different aspects of similar themes.

What makes "Ex Machina" compelling is how complex it is willing to get in the discussions about Ava's possible humanity. Caleb worries that Nathan has simply programmed her to flirt with him and to look like the type of woman he searches for on the Internet in order to cloud his judgment.

Nathan wants to invent an A.I. that can achieve consciousness yet like a controlling parent, he's upset when his creation no longer wants to obey him. In "The Machine," the android created ends up surpassing its maker in terms of moral judgment but in "Ex Machina" Ava's flaws are part of what proves how human she has become.

And Garland raises the issue that if a parent passes on certain traits through either genetics or nurture, isn't it likely that Nathan would similarly pass on traits to Ava through both his programming and his behavior. So if he lacks a moral compass how can we expect Ava to have a strong sense of right and wrong? But then Garland goes on to suggest that part of what would make her human would be her ability to learn what is right and what is wrong as she experiences more of the world.

When we meet Ava she is presented as an adult woman but mentally and emotionally she may be more like a child.

In Nathan and Caleb, the film offers us two sides of humanity: Nathan is selfish, egotistically and sometimes cruel whereas Caleb is moral, kind, and sometimes naive. From the outset the film wants us to realize that being human isn't one thing, it's not some ideal of how we think we should be but rather something complex. The fact that Garland is willing to raise multiple issues and ideas with no clear cut answer is commendable, and it's what the best science fiction does — it makes us think about ourselves.

"Ex Machina" (rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence) is a stylish, slickly packaged tale that resists sentimentality in favor of invigorating intellectual debate.


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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