Friday, May 22, 2015
At the Movies: "Ex Machina"
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% Fresh
Ex Machina asks a question that is pretty familiar in science fiction: how would an human-made artificial intelligence react to its self-awareness? What would it think of its highly successful but conspicuously flawed creator species? The answer to these questions is often implicit in a fictional world: in Terminator, Skynet decides not to play well with its makers; in Next-Generation Star Trek, Data is a core member of the ship's company. In Ex Machina, the question of an artificial intelligence's relationship with humanity is front and center.
Now, there are plenty of smart folks who think that the "singularity event" at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence is right around the bend. They are, I think, kidding themselves. Given current technology and our understanding of how cognition works, I think a safe estimate for when we will see the development of real artificial consciousness is: never.
Whether or not a sentient android is a realistic concept, however, it's a concept that science fiction can use to think about how we treat people who are not like us. "What happens to me if I fail your test?" asks Ex Machina's artificially intelligent entity. The machine certainly feels conscious -- or has the capacity of claiming to feel conscious, anyway -- and it is pretty anxious about what its human makers will do if they decide its consciousness is not "real," or not real enough. Humans may never find themselves in the position of making exactly this decision, but this kind of decision gets made all the time. Individually or collectively, we continually make judgements as to whether other people (or groups, or nations) are sincere. Are their beliefs legitimate? Are their priorities worthy of respect? Are their values close enough to our own that we can "do business with them"? The social value of a movie like Ex Machina is that it makes us rethink our obligations to people who will be affected by our judgements of them.
But of course, you don't go to the movies for a lesson in tolerance. You go to the movies to be to transported into a elaborately crafted alternative reality! Fortunately, Ex Machina delivers on the entertainment front. It's an action-adventure with very little "action" per se; much of the drama and suspense comes from trying to figure out what the characters are up to. Much of what they say are clearly half-truths in the service of personal agendas, but we have to constantly revise our notions of what exactly their agendas are. By the end of their week long "adventure," some characters will clearly be better off than others, but whether that is because they have acted more "intelligently," or more intentionally, is up for debate. It's stylish, a bit unsettling, and a lot of fun to watch.
Plot: It's a bit like The Tempest, actually. Our Prospero is Nathan, a wealthy but world-weary software tycoon, and his island is an enormously isolated mountain compound. He has the place tricked out in sleek, spartan luxury, and thoroughly wired for the security and surveillance apparatus that comprise his Ariel and his Caliban. He invites a young and apparently rather naive employee named Caleb out to the compound for a week. Caleb will become a sort of Fernando, manipulated by a scheming Prospero into an infatuation with his beautiful daughter Miranda. In Ex Machina, though, the beautiful daughter is an android named Ana. Caleb is asked to subject Ana to the "Turing test" -- to interact with her in order to decide whether she possesses genuine intelligence and self-consciousness.
In Shakespeare, Fernando and Miranda are happily paired up by the final curtain, and Prospero is poised to reclaim the Dutchy of Milan. Maybe things will end equally well for Caleb, Ana, and Nathan in Ex Machina! Or maybe not. I'll never tell.
Visuals: Ana the robot is largely transparent -- literally, at least -- and this is a striking visual image. Otherwise, most of the film's visual identity comes from its location, the disturbingly clean interiors of Nathan's empty modernist mansion. It's an appropriately sterile environment for the social and technical experiment that takes place there.
Dialogue: It's a really strong screenplay! Nathan talks like an arrogant, intelligent man who hasn't had to deal with contradiction in many years, and Caleb talks like a deferential, intelligent man who doesn't contradict people very often. Ana talks like... well, what does she talk like, anyway?
Prognosis: Some people have a blanket dislike of science fiction, and some people don't much like dialog-driven films. Ex Machina isn't for those folks, but most others should find it pretty interesting stuff.
Michael 5000's imdb rating: 8.